Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Balance of Terror

Roscosmos General Director Dmitri Rogozin (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2021. Original image source: Getty Images via Ars Technica.

Back when I was studying foreign relations in university in the late 1970s, mutually assured destruction (MAD) was considered common sense defense policy. The idea was that, if an enemy attacked you with a nuclear weapon, you responded in kind. If one side didn't back down, the war would continue to escalate until both sides — and, presumably, the entire population of Planet Earth — were rendered extinct.

One wonders why the United States and Soviet Union didn't just point the missiles straight up to come back down and commit mutual suicide. It would be more effective.

President Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, reflected in his 1979 memoir White House Years about American strategic doctrine when he assumed office in 1969:

It was all very well to threaten mutual suicide for purposes of deterrence, particularly in case of a direct threat to national survival. But no President could make such a threat credible except by conducting a diplomacy that suggested a high irrationality ... And if deterrence failed and the President was finally faced with the decision to retaliate, who would take the moral responsibility for recommending a strategy based on the mass extermination of civilians?

Despite his many failings, Nixon is also remembered for his bold steps to cool off the Cold War. He signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, then entered into the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972.

Nixon and Kissinger adopted a policy of détente, meaning a negotiation of stability and even parity between the two nations.

Decades later, the Soviet Union is no more, replaced by the Russian Federation. Several of the former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, are now independent nations.

MAD is now considered, well, mad. It's an obsolete defense tactic. As Dr. Kissinger wrote, a state leader would have to act highly irrational for MAD to have credibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have just gone MAD.

The Russian Defense Ministry has confirmed that a missile strike destroyed a defunct Soviet-era reconnaissance satellite, identified as Cosmos 1408. The satellite was probably built in the 1970s by Ukraine's Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and launched in 1982.

Official Ministry statements were reported by the government-owned wire service TASS and the government-owned news web site Russia Today.

The test left a debris cloud that could orbit Earth for years and poses a threat to the International Space Station. The destruction caused NASA to awaken the ISS crewmembers — including the Russians — and send them to their space capsule lifeboats. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei joined Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov in their Soyuz capsule, while recently arrived Crew-3 members — three Americans and a German — took shelter in their SpaceX Dragon awaiting word to abandon ship.

An angry NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took to Twitter:

If anyone in the U.S. government, military or civilian, knows how Russia destroyed its spy satellite, they're not talking. Neither are the Russians. Russia Today called it a “missile test” but provided no details.

Anti-satellite (ASAT) tests have been conducted by the United States since 1959 and Russia since at least 1963. The Secure World Foundation tracks ASAT tests. According to an SWF spreadsheet last updated at the end of 2020:

The sheet currently lists more than 70 tests that have been conducted by four countries (the United States, Russia, China, and India) since 1959. The majority of the tests were conducted by the United States and Soviet Union during the first two decades of the Cold War, but there has been a recent resurgence with more than 20 tests conducted since 2005. In total, ASAT testing has created nearly 5,000 pieces of cataloged orbital debris, more than 3,200 of which are still on orbit. Many of the tests pushed orbital debris much higher than the altitude of the destroyed object, which contributed to the average lifespan of 25 years for the debris from each test to re-enter the atmosphere.

According to the spreadsheet, the last U.S. test was 2008. All debris from U.S. tests has re-entered the atmosphere and burned up.

Before yesterday, the last Russian test was in 2019. Russian tests have left about 900 pieces of debris in orbit, and a little more than half have burned up. According to the U.S. Space Command, the latest Russian test left at least 1,500 pieces of debris.

China has conducted only one test that resulted in the destruction of a target. That 2007 event left about 3,500 pieces of debris in orbit, and less than 20% of them have re-entered the atmosphere. The ISS has performed several maneuvers over the years to avoid that debris, most recently on November 11.

But China has none of its people at risk on the ISS.

That's why Russia's test seems inexplicable to many observers.

According to The Washington Post, Administrator Nelson believes that his counterpart Dmitri Rogozin and Russian space agency Roscosmos officials were unaware in advance of the test or the potential consequences.

Rogozin posted a tweet in Russian today that didn't defend the incident. He wrote that he had spoken by phone with Nelson. “In short, in the Russian language, we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS, making joint plans. I am waiting for Bill in Moscow, because, for obvious reasons, I cannot visit the United States.”

Rogozin is under U.S. sanctions due to Russia's invasion of the Crimean part of Ukraine in 2012.

Here is Nelson's version of that conversation:

It's an unsually quiet response by Rogozin, whose boisterous and belligerent rhetoric at times has threatened and belittled the American-Russian space partnership. In 2014, when NASA still relied on Russia for ISS crew rotations, Rogozin suggested that NASA use a trampoline. As recently as June, Rogozin threatened that Russia will leave the ISS partnership in 2025 if sanctions are not lifted.

I assume that Nelson's intelligence is accurate, that the Russian military didn't inform Rogozin or Roscosmos in advance. Certainly President Putin knew, and gave his blessing, if he himself didn't order it.

The apathy towards the danger posed to Russian cosmonauts suggests that someone in power — and that means Putin — wanted to send a message. The cosmonauts' lives were worth the potential sacrifice.

Just my speculation, but my guess is it might have something to do with a November 1 Politico article that featured orbital photos of Russian troops and equipment massing on the Ukraine border. The photos were taken by a commercial satellite owned by American company Maxar Technologies.

The Politico article was specifically mentioned in another Russia Today article, one posted today about Ukraine leaders telling the European Union to prepare for war with Russia. The RT article concluded:

US news site POLITICO drew fire earlier this month for reports that claimed Russian forces were stepping up their presence near the border with Ukraine. Satellite images published alongside the article claimed to show Russian hardware near the city of Yelnya, around 250 kilometers from Ukraine, and closer to neighboring Belarus.

Someone in the Kremlin clearly doesn't like Maxar taking pictures of their troop movements, much less Politico reporting about it.

What better way to send a message than shooting down a spy satellite?

Cosmos 1408 intercepted radio emissions, it didn't take pictures, but a spysat is a spysat.

Putin's message may be to stop publishing photos of his troop movements, or next time he'll take out one of ours — military or civilian.

A ground-based missile isn't the only way to disable a satellite.

Professor Wendy Whitman Cobb of the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies wrote for The Conversation web site today that the weapon used on Cosmos 1408 was probably a “direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon. These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and destroy satellites by running into them at high speeds.”

A co-orbital anti-satellite weapon can be launched into orbit, then change course to collide with its target.

A non-kinetic anti-satellite weapon, such as a laser, can disrupt a satellite without a collision.

The U.S. Air Force robotic orbiter X-37B in May 2020 tested an on-orbit power-beaming system that could be used to direct high-powered microwaves and other direct energy beams at an enemy target in space.

In July 2019, former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson revealed that the X-37B had the ability to change its orbit, possibly by dipping into the upper atmosphere to create drag, to confound an enemy trying to track and even target it.

To my knowledge, the Russians have demonstrated no comparable technology to the X-37B.

So what does Putin gain by destroying a defunct satellite and endangering cosmonauts?

Think MAD.

Dr. Kissinger wrote that, for MAD to work, a leader has to appear highly irrational.

Putin is many things, but irrational isn't one of them.

But he is cold and calculating.

Several of Putin's critics have died or been badly injured in assassination attempts.

Nixon and Kissinger believed that the way out of MAD was to establish parity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side would have roughly the same capped capabilities to destroy the other. But the capabilities would be capped, no longer beyond the ability of the Soviet economy to afford.

TASS reported today that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wants the U.S. to negotiate an outer space arms treaty with Russia and China.

“We would prefer that the United States should sit down at the negotiating table at last, instead of making groundless accusations, and discuss its concerns with regard to the treaty, which Russia and China are proposing to prevent this arms race and which the US cannot accept. It would be very interesting for us to hear a specific and reasoned position and not pretexts. We are ready for that,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

What better way to bring the U.S. to the table than a demonstration of a potential weapon of terror?

In October, Ars Technica journalist Eric Berger reported that Russia will cut the Roscosmos budget about 16% annually over the next three years, and that Putin is unhappy with the agency's performance.

Roscosmos is a nominally civilian agency, but still it's a sign that international sanctions are working. Russia doesn't have the money or the knowledge base to compete with the X-37B and other Western technologies.

So that's what Putin wants. A return to parity. A balance of terror that he can afford.

The international crew of the space station are no more than pawns in his geopolitical chess game.

UPDATE November 17, 2021 — The pro-Kremlin nationalist web site Pravda.ru published an article today claiming that a new Russian anti-missile system can shoot down the American X-37B robotic orbiter. It cites a Chinese website call Sohu as the source. This appears to be the source article, using Google Translate to translate into English. The article is dated November 14, the day before the Russian ASAT test.

Eric Berger of Ars Technica published a story today reporting that “some of the largest pieces of debris have already reached altitudes from as high as 1,100 km and as low as 300 km above the Earth.” The ISS typically is around 400 km.

Friday, September 24, 2021


The first commercial passenger flight from Detroit to Cleveland, in 1928. Video source: King Rose Archives YouTube channel.

Say what you will about the year of our Lord 2021, but future aerospace historians will remember this year as when commercial space travel finally became viable.

On July 11, billionaire Sir Richard Branson and invited passengers reached an altitude of about 53 miles on their Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.

After he landed, Branson said:

We're here to make space more accessible to all. We want to turn the next generation of dreamers into the astronauts of today and tomorrow. We've all us on this stage have had the most extraordinary experience, and we'd love it if a number of you can have it, too. If you ever had a dream, now is the time to make it come true. I'd like to end by saying welcome to the dawn of a new space age.

Nine days later, on July 20, the world's richest man, billionaire Jeff Bezos, and his invited guests reached 66 miles on their Blue Origin suborbital flight.

After he landed, Bezos said:

What we’re really trying to do is build reusable space vehicles. It’s the only way to build a road to space, and we need to build a road to space so that our children can build the future.

Space Coast news coverage of the Inspiration4 launch, September 15, 2021. Video source: Spectrum News via Space SPAN YouTube channel.

On September 15, SpaceX launched Inspiration4, the first all-American orbital commercial mission, from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A. Billionaire Jared Isaacman purchased a crew Dragon flight atop a Falcon 9 rocket, a three-day mission that reached an altitude of about 364 miles, or about 100 miles higher than the International Space Station's orbit. Isaacman selected three passengers from all walks of life to join him.

With all three flights, some of the media focus was on the “billionaire” status of those financing the flights, as if it's immoral for rich people to pay for non-rich people to go into space.

Some complain that the money could have been better spent on the impoverished, the homeless, the afflicted.

But guess what?! We're a rich nation. We're capable of doing more than one thing at a time.

According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of U.S. households at the end of 2021's second quarter was $141.7 trillion.

If you want to solve poverty, homelessless, and diseases, we're awash in money to do it. You need to convince your elected officials to do something about these problems.

The Inspiration4 mission's goal was to raise $200 million for St. Jude's Hospital. SpaceX founder Elon Musk donated $50 million after the flight to put the effort over the top.

More firsts are planned in upcoming months.

Roscosmos will launch a film director and woman actor to the International Space Station in early October. The Russians launched several space tourists in the early 2000s, starting with Dennis Tito for $20 million in 2001.

SpaceX and Axiom Space are targeting February 21 for the Ax-1 mission. Three affluent investors will join former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria for an eight-day mission to the ISS.

While some spin these historic firsts as a criticism of the ills of capitalism, I think the larger point is being missed.

The technology has advanced.

No longer does NASA control who goes into space. You don't have to be a government employee to go into space. A government agency (the Federal Aviation Administration) regulates the flight, but doesn't decide if you're worthy of it.

Inspiration4 was the first orbital flight with no NASA involvement, other than being the landlord who leased SpaceX the launch pad.

SpaceX trained the crew, launched them, and landed them safely.

SpaceX did everything that NASA has done for the last sixty years.

Within the next decade, we may see other American companies achieve the same capability.

NASA is finally returning to its original purpose when it was founded in 1958.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began on October 1, 1958. It was created as a political response to the panic following the early Soviet Sputnik flights, when the mistaken public perception was that American space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union.

The political solution — a bipartisan agreement between the Republican Eisenhower administration and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson — was to merge the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with existing military space research programs that could be spun off into a civilian agency. NASA took over military research programs such as the X-15 and what eventually became Project Mercury.

These were research programs. They were not intended to be operational programs providing routine access to space, much less to compete with a commercial space industry that didn't exist at the time.

The NACA was created in 1915 because of the public perception that American aviation technology lagged behind Europe.

A 2015 NASA documentary on the 100th anniversary of the NASA. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Aviation engineers joined the NACA to force-feed technology into the American aviation industry. Because computers didn't exist, the NACA built wind tunnels at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia to test their ideas.

Many of the airplane technologies we take for granted today came out of the NACA, such as engine cowlings, the shape of an airplane fuselage, and the angles of airplane wings.

But the government didn't run the airlines, as NASA has controlled space access for the last sixty years. NACA made their findings available to the private sector, so America could compete on a global stage.

The events of 2021 are evocative of the earliest years of American commercial passenger aviation.

Just as the affluent are paying now to fly with SpaceX, Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic, so did the affluent pay airplane companies to fly them on the first short hops from one city to another.

A January 1, 1920 article in the Chicago Tribune declared that “air transportation is now practicable” but noted that “the cost of travel is high.” The author estimated the cost of a flight from London to Paris at about $100, which works out to about $1,300 today. A cursory Google search shows that the cost of a London-to-Paris flight today is roughly $100 round-trip, but you can find cheaper.

Five years later, in March 1925, an author for the North American News Alliance wrote, “the aeroplane has served no better use than killing men; it is still almost a failure as a commercial vehicle.”

The governments of Europe are encouraging civilian flying as a subsidiary to their military plans. Were it not for that, Europe would probably see from one year's end to the other only a little stunt-flying at country fairs.

Is that any different from now, one hundred years later, when Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are just now launching suborbital hops?

The SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission, and next February's Ax-1 mission, are viable because NASA selected SpaceX, Falcon 9 and Dragon for commercial cargo, which allowed SpaceX to mature those technologies to fly government employees.

Despite the author's skepticism, only two years later was Charles Lindbergh's nonstop transatlantic flight from New York City to Paris. That flight was to win a $25,000 prize (about $360,000 in today's dollars) offered in 1919 by French-American hotel owner Raymond Orteig. Six men died over the years before Lindbergh finally won.

When he returned a month later to New York City, Lindbergh in a speech said, “Our greatest need is for airports close to the great cities.” He foresaw the next great technological leap as “multimotored planes” and urged the nation to look forward to a time when passenger service would be “better than that of any European country.”

Three years later, multimotored translantic flights were about to become a reality.

The Dornier Do X flight of August 1931. Video source: Discovery Channel via Inventing the World YouTube channel.

In February 1930, American aviation pioneer William Stout was quoted as saying that $750 million had been spent in the last two years on commercial aviation technology. That's about $11.4 billion in today's dollars! One can imagine critics saying that the money would be better spent on helping those suffering during the Great Depression.

“Nothing has yet come out of it” but, “When it comes, then will come the revolution of aeronautics.”

German airplane designer Claude Dornier had completed the Dornier Do X, a giant flying boat with six propellers and twelve engines, capable of carrying 169 passengers. In August 1931, the Dornier Do X flew from west Africa to Brazil, then north until it finally arrived in New York City, completing the first transatlantic flight of a large passenger plane.

Although the Dornier Do X was too inefficient to fly as a commercial enterprise, it proved the technology, and established the precedent.

William Stout's 1930 views regarding passenger aviation. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Miami News-Record via Newspapers.com.

Perhaps the modern equivalent will be the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy, currently being developed at Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas. According to the Starship User Guide, “the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into [low Earth orbit] and on to the Moon and Mars.”

In a September 21 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General António Guterres cited “billionaires joyriding to space” as one of the world's problems. According to Jeff Foust at Space News:

“At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today: a malady of mistrust,” he said, after mentioning the pandemic and the climate crisis. That included, he said, when people “see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth.”

He did not elaborate on that claim in his address, saying only that such issues may cause people “to lose faith not only in their governments and institutions but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years.”

I would point the Secretary General to the giant leaps one hundred years ago in aviation technology, at the time of a global depression, that led to commercial passenger aviation affordable for almost anyone on the planet.

Millions go hungry on Earth not because of NewSpace.

They go hungry because global leaders can't get their priorities straight.

I suspect that those who are hungry don't blame Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson for their hunger.

I do suspect that, when they see “regular people” going to space, many of them are inspired to believe that better days lie ahead.

Because if that is possible, solving hunger and homelessless and disease can't be that hard.

BREAKING NEWS September 24, 2021TMZ reports that 90-year old actor William Shatner is one of the crew members for the scheduled October 15 launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard. The report has not been confirmed by Mr. Shatner or any other source.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tampa, We've Had a Problem

May 25, 1961 ... President John F. Kennedy proposes landing a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Video source: NASA.

Sixty years ago today, on September 19, 1961, NASA announced that its human spaceflight program would be based in Houston, Texas.

As with most government programs, politics played a role in the decision.

The popular myth is that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson somehow steered the decision to his home state. That myth is not supported by the evidence.

But members of Congress, governors, and many others with a vested interest tried to interfere in the selection.

An excellent resource for this topic is John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, by John M. Logsdon, who is generally considered the preeminent American space policy scholar. The book focused on the politics and policy behind Kennedy's decision to propose what came to be known as Project Apollo. Logsdon's work will be cited throughout this article.

Dr. John Logsdon presents a lecture based on his book, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.” Video source: KISSCaltech YouTube channel.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed to Congress that the United States land a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

Twenty days earlier, NASA had launched the first American into space, Alan Shepard, on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Shepard and the other Project Mercury astronauts were based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Langley's facilities were limited, and NASA management knew that much more extensive facilities would be required for what was then called the Space Task Group.

Word leaked out through Aviation Week magazine that NASA might be looking to move its Space Task Group headquarters. According to the article, the leading candidate cities were Houston, Texas and Tampa, Florida.

Politicians began to do what they do — protect the interests of their constituencies.

Both U.S. Senators representing Virginia fired off protests to NASA officials. Logsdon wrote on page 126 that Langley's specialty was engineering research, not the “engineering development, flight operations, and especially project management skills” required for Apollo.

The U.S. Air Force, during the Eisenhower administration, in April 1960 announced their intention to close MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa by mid-1962. Planes and pilots already were being transferred elsewhere. Despite the recent overthrow of Cuba's government by forces led by Fidel Castro, one USAF official in June 1960 told the Tampa Tribune that Air Force officials didn't see any immediate “physical” threat from Cuba.

Local leaders were scrambling to find a reuse for the base. For Tampa, the Space Task Group was political manna. With Cape Canaveral about 150 miles to the northeast, MacDill to them seemed a logical solution. Tampa and Florida state leaders began a statewide campaign to bring the STG to MacDill. W. Scott Christopher, executive secretary of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, told the Tampa Tribune that he'd been tipped by an “important supply source in the missile industry” that STG might move to Tampa. He claimed that NASA had already decided that MacDill was “the only Florida site NASA would consider.”

U.S. Senator Spessard Holland (D-FL), a member of the Senate subcommittee responsible for NASA budget appropriations, joined the Tampa chamber's effort and said that he'd heard Houston and also Moffett Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area were candidate sites.

Tampa had Holland, but Houston had Rep. Albert Thomas (D-TX).

Thomas was chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA's funding. Houston was in his district. During the Eisenhower administration, Thomas had urged NASA to locate a “laboratory” affiliated with Rice University, and threatened to withhold funding until he got his way. The “laboratory” went to Greenbelt, Maryland, home of today's Goddard Space Flight Center, but Thomas's intentions were clear.

According to Logsdon, Kennedy's newly appointed NASA Administrator, James Webb, was well aware of Thomas's interests and so NASA officials visited Houston on May 16, 1961 to meet with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce. Thomas made it clear that his offer, and threat, still stood. Rice University was willing to donate a large plot of land. George Brown, a local construction company owner who had financially supported Johnson's political campaigns, hoped to get the contract to build the new center. But the search didn't begin in earnest until after August 7, 1961, when Congress passed the appropriations bill to fund the new center.

Other regions bid too. The White House and NASA were bombarded by offers, through politicians in both houses of Congress. Republican governor John Volpe of Massachusetts pressured Kennedy to deliver the new center to their home state. Kennedy told Webb that the Administrator should make the final decision “in the light of the national interest,” free of political pressure.

On July 7, 1961, Webb directed the creation of a selection team, and the development of selection criteria. According to a 2017 Johnson Space Center history article:

Essential criteria for the new site included the availability of water transport and a first-class all-weather airport, proximity to a major telecommunications network, a well established pool of industrial and contractor support, a readily available supply of water, a mild climate permitting year-round outdoor work and a culturally attractive community. Houston was initially included by virtue of the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, since military rather than commercial facilities were judged best for helping handle NASA's large retinue of jets and specialized equipment, and because of its recognized, prominent universities, including Rice, Texas, and Texas A&M.

Logsdon wrote on page 129 that 23 sites were reviewed by the selection team — two in Florida, three in Louisiana, nine in Texas, four in Missouri, and five in California. The requirement for a mild climate eliminated Massachusetts and other candidates.

While the NASA selection team began visiting potential sites, events elsewhere in the world decided MacDill's fate — and won Houston the new field center.

During the summer of 1961, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev tested the inexperienced new American president by escalating events in Berlin. The East German government, backed by the Soviet Union, began building a wall to separate the Soviet zone from the zones controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The wall would keep the people of East Germany from defecting to the West. The border was closed on August 13, 1961, and by the end of the month Kennedy had begun activating National Guard units for overseas deployment.

On July 31, 1961, the Air Force announced that MacDill would remain open indefinitely, with its B-47 bomber fleet remaining closer to Europe and Cuba.

The St. Petersburg Times reported the next day that Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay believed MacDill could house both the 306th Bomb Wing and the new NASA facilities.

But the reality was, so long as MacDill remained a military base, it would be a prime target for an enemy nuclear attack.

As NASA officials prepared to inspect MacDill, the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 19, 1961 that an “informed source” claimed the “Tampa Bay area is the most likely choice, bar none.” The report noted that the team was also going to visit Green Cove Springs Naval Base near Jacksonville, Florida.

The NASA team arrived Monday night August 21, and toured the base the next day.

A NASA selection team tours MacDill Air Force Base on August 22, 1961. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: The Tampa Times.

The Tampa Times quoted NASA Ames deputy director Jack Parsons as saying that close proximity to cultural and educational facilities ranked high on the list of criteria. The problem was not keeping so much as attracting technical personnel. Representatives of local universities acknowledged that they lacked the graduate programs NASA sought for their engineers and scientists, although such programs were planned for the near future.

NASA announced on September 19, 1961 — sixty years ago today — that the selection team had chosen the Rice University site.

Florida governor Farris Bryant, a Democrat, said that he didn't believe political considerations entered into the decision, but Republican Rep. William Cramer (R-FL) charged that President Kennedy had left the decision to Vice President Johnson, a Texan. Cramer offered no evidence to back up his allegation.

Many other locals tried to blame Johnson. Winston King, a member of the Tampa team, alleged:

My sentiments are perhaps summarized by a statement made by a high NASA official in Washington last week when he said, “Everybody in NASA wants to go to Tampa. Tampa has everything we need. However, it lacks only one thing. It does not have a Lyndon Johnson.”

Once again, no evidence was provided to support the claim, nor was this “high NASA official” ever named.

Did Johnson influence the decision?

Dr. Logsdon's book concludes he did not.

Johnson's primary contribution to Kennedy administration space policy was his April 28, 1961 memo recommending a crewed lunar mission by the end of the 1960s. Kennedy had made Johnson chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, but the Council had only one full-time employee and was no more than an advisory body. NASA Administrator James Webb answered to Kennedy, not Johnson. To quote from page 124 of Logsdon's book:

Webb was scrupulous in keeping Johnson informed, but he made it clear that he worked for the president, not the vice president. This also left little room for the vice president and the Space Council staff to play a central role in most of the decisions on how best to move forward in sending Americans to the Moon.

According to Dr. Logsdon, MacDill had been the selection team's first choice, but “at the last minute the Air Force changed its mind about closing MacDill, and the team's second preference, the Houston site associated with Rice University, became the top-ranked choice of the site selection group.”

Logsdon wrote, “it was Albert Thomas, not Johnson, who had the greater influence on the decision to locate the center in Houston.”

So what happened to MacDill?

It's still open to this day.

According to MacDill's web site, “the 1961 Berlin Crisis and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis led to a reprieve of the planned cutbacks and highlighted MacDill's strategic value.”

If the Soviet bloc had not erected the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, if the Cold War had remained cool, the Air Force might have proceeded with closing MacDill, and NASA might have decided to choose Tampa instead of Houston.

Had history followed a different path, the first word spoken on the surface of the Moon might not have been “Houston”:

“Tampa, Tranquility Base Here. The Eagle has Landed.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Decadal Survey

September 14, 2011 ... Then-Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) unveils the design for the Space Launch System.

Imagine the consequences if politicians, and not engineers, designed rockets.

On January 10, 1962, NASA engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama announced that they would evolve their Saturn rocket into an advanced version with five first-stage engines and 7.5 million pounds of thrust. This advanced Saturn would be capable of sending American astronauts to land on the Moon.

Engineers made the decision, at a NASA center dedicated to rocket design, free of political influence.

The first Saturn V launch was a little less than five years later, on November 9, 1967.

Now let's imagine that politicians took it upon themselves to design a rocket, not for a specific mission or destination, but to protect a workforce.

That's what happened ten years ago today,

On September 14, 2011, then-U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and now-retired U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) led a bipartisan media event on the ground floor of the Senate Dirksen Building in Washington, DC to unveil the design for a new rocket they were foisting upon NASA, to be called the Space Launch System.

The basic design of SLS was dictated by Congress in the 2010 NASA authorization act.

The legislation mandated that NASA must base SLS on Space Shuttle technology, and use existing Space Shuttle and Project Constellation contractors without competitive bid. The law discouraged innovation, telling NASA to “minimize the modification and development of ground infrastructure and maximize the utilization of existing software, vehicle, and mission operations processes.”

The bill also directed that SLS have “operational capability” by no later than December 31, 2016.

Just who actually came up with the SLS design has never been clear. Members of Congress dominated the event a decade ago. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was relegated to a minor role, speaking for five minutes, while the politicians congratulated themselves for all the jobs they were going to create.

I've written many times about this event, most notably a September 2012 blog article titled “The Monster Rocket.” It was a phrase Nelson has used many times to describe SLS, the phallic symbolism lost upon him.

In a boast that has proven wildly wrong, Nelson said that day:

This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA authorization act, but less. The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.

An Artemis cost graphic issued in March 2021 by the NASA Office of the Inspector General. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA OIG.

The NASA Office of the Inspector General issued a report in March 2021 which showed that to date NASA had spent $17.2 billion on the “monster rocket,” with another $2.6 billion expected in the current fiscal year. That's $19.8 billion, or about double what Nelson said it would cost.

But none of that mattered ten years ago. What did matter to the assembled politicians was that they were able to boast about all the jobs they were creating in their districts and states.

A group calling itself the Competitive Space Task Force posted in March 2011 a now legendary article dubbing SLS the “Senate Launch System”. Its authors wrote:

The Congress is assuming, in the face of numerous studies indicating otherwise, that the lowest-cost approach for the future is to continue the high-cost approach in which we've been engaged for the past half century. Note also that there are many heavy-lift concepts that do not employ solid rocket motors, and that the only thing for which they are “critical” is the maintenance of a jobs base in the state of Utah.

The number of projected jobs made the front page of next day's Florida Today, the newspaper for Florida's Space Coast and those who worked at Kennedy Space Center.

The paper estimated that “roughly 2,000 KSC jobs” would be created by the proposed SLS. The first uncrewed test flight would be in 2017, and the first “piloted” mission would be in 2021.

The front page of the September 15, 2011 Florida Today. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Newspapers.com.

If you look at your calendar, you'll notice that we are indeed in 2021. Not only has no one piloted the Orion spacecraft atop SLS, but SLS has yet to fly at all.

Although NASA still clings to the notion that the first test flight, dubbed Artemis I, will launch by the end of this year, the realists think it'll be sometime in Spring 2022 — assuming there are no more delays. Artemis II, the first flight with crew, is projected for some time around 2023.

No one at the SLS unveiling could have foreseen that, a decade later, Nelson would be the one running NASA.

No one could have foreseen that any politician would be in charge of NASA. That changed in September 2017 when President Donald Trump nominated House representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for NASA Administrator.

Florida's two U.S. Senators criticized the nomination, not just Nelson but also Republican Marco Rubio. In a written statement, Nelson said, "The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." Rubio felt the nomination might be held up due to partisanship.

To open Bridenstine's nomination hearing, Nelson said, "The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive."

Bridenstine left NASA on January 2021, the date that Joe Biden became President. I'd argue the consensus is that Bridenstine proved the skeptics, including Nelson, wrong.

Jeffrey Kluger of Time wrote that Bridenstine “became something NASA always needs: a leader with both a vision to sell and the ability to sell it.”

May 14, 2019 ... In a “Moon Town Hall,” Administrator Bridenstine announces Project Artemis.

Perhaps his signature achievement will be viewed by historians as his packaging disparate NASA programs into one marketable concept, called Project Artemis.

Artemis gave SLS and Orion a specific near-future mission — to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

President Barack Obama, in an April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, set NASA's next goal for human space flight as sending people to Mars by the end of the 2030s.

The Obama administration didn't ignore the Moon. Our lone natural satellite would be left for the private sector, through a program called NextSTEP. The first NextSTEP request for proposals was issued by NASA in October 2014.

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas — advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System — is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight. This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

Congress never warmed to the idea of an Apollo-style and Apollo-budget program to send humans to Mars, perhaps because the return to their districts and states would not be immediate. SLS protected jobs, and that was good enough.

Project Artemis packaged SLS pork with NextSTEP, and added a lunar space station called Gateway that used a solar electric power and propulsion element the Obama administration had originally intended to develop as part of its Asteroid Redirect Mission. Never popular with Congress, ARM was cancelled by the Trump administration in December 2017, but the power and propulsion element eventually became part of Gateway.

The Obama administration used a loophole in NASA's founding charter to sign Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with the private sector, circumventing the expensive pork-laden “cost plus” contracts favored by Congress that guarantee profits for legacy contractors, such as those no-bid SLS contracts. SAA contractors win a competitive bid for a fixed price, and are paid only after delivery of the service.

Other than SLS and the Orion crew spacecraft, much of Project Artemis will be performed by SAA contractors or NASA's international spacefaring partners. The Trump administration and Bridenstine embraced SAAs, now reluctantly accepted by Congress, as a way to accelerate the Moon program.

The 2009 Augustine Committee report issued in October 2009 discussed the need for a “super heavy-lift launch vehicle” for deep space missions, but in a context of the absence of in-space refueling. The committee wrote, “... a prudent approach is to develop a heavy-lift launch system with sufficient capabilities for early missions, which would later be enhanced by in-space refueling when it becomes available.”

Congress for years has generally been resistant to the notion of propellant depots in space, perhaps because such technology could obviate the need for a big expensive no-bid government rocket. But in October 2020, Bridenstine announced fourteen “Tipping Point” awards to American companies to demonstrate various in-space “cryogenic fluid management technologies.”

When Congress mandated SLS in 2010, no “super heavy” launch vehicles were on the private sector horizon. Why? The government hadn't paid them to build one.

April 5, 2011 ... Elon Musk unveils the concept for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX had just launched the first Falcon 9 in June 2010. The Falcon Heavy concept was unveiled in April 2011. With his typical over-optimism, SpaceX founder Elon Musk predicted the first test flight would be in 2013. It was actually 2018.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle in September 2015. When it will launch is anyone's guess.

In all fairness, when Nelson unveiled the SLS design ten years ago today, no commercial super-heavy option was credible. But neither was there any deep-space mission that required one. The priority for human space flight was completion and operation of the International Space Station.

Had Congress supported an SAA-style competition similar to NASA's ISS commercial cargo and crew programs, it's likely that a super-heavy vehicle would have been developed by now for less than what SLS has cost the taxpayer, and be operational.

Nelson has only been NASA Administrator since May 2021. It's too soon to judge what his legacy as Administrator will be. For now, he seems content to continue the course of the last administration, which built upon what President Obama, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver began in the early 2010s.

An early test has been to shepherd NASA's delicate relationship with Roscosmos, at a time of frosty relations between the United States and Russia.

The Russians have sent mixed messages about maintaining their ISS partnership after 2024. Although the ISS's life space is estimated to be at least through 2030, Russia recently reported “superficial fissures” in the Zarya module that “will begin to spread over time.”

In the United States, private companies already have begun to develop commercial space habitats, some of which may become part of Gateway, or fly in low Earth orbit, as a complement and one day a replacement for ISS. SpaceX and Axiom plan crewed private missions to ISS within the next year.

July 21, 2021 ... Bill Nelson discusses with the Washington Post the Chinese space program. Video source: Washington Post Live YouTube channel.

Nelson may also have to address the maturation of the Chinese space program. Nelson believes that NASA is “in a space race with China” and notes that their program is intertwined with their military, unlike NASA in the United States.

But because of what he said ten years ago, Nelson's legacy will forever be linked to his midwifery of Space Launch System. Success or failure, SLS will be remembered as Bill Nelson's “monster rocket.”

For his legacy to be more than that, to be remembered as another Bridenstine, Nelson will have to place “NewSpace” ahead of OldSpace, which means at some point ending SLS.

SpaceX is developing and testing its Starship technology at their Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas. When operational, it's projected to deliver 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, more than the SLS Block 1 at 70 metric tons.

More powerful versions of SLS are on the drawing boards, but at what expense?

That may be the true test of Nelson's NASA legacy. Will he support spending more billions on SLS Block 1B and Block 2, or will he save that money by acquiring more affordable launch services from SpaceX or another vendor?

Who will design American launch vehicles — engineers or politicians?

If only Nixon could go to China, then perhaps only Nelson can end SLS.

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Myth of the Mercury 13

An editorial cartoon that appeared on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel on July 18, 1962. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Newspapers.com.

Blue Origin announced on July 1 that Wally Funk will be one of the passengers when the company launches its first crewed spaceflight from Van Horn, Texas. The launch is targeted for July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

Funk was one of a group of woman aviators who were invited around 1960 by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II to undergo some of the same tests taken by the Project Mercury astronaut candidates in late 1958.

Over the decades, Dr. Lovelace's research was largely forgotten until a film producer named James Cross made a documentary about the group, whom he dubbed the “Mercury 13.”

According to an October 23, 1998 Orlando Sentinel article:

It was Cross who dubbed the women “The Mercury 13,” although they were never actually affiliated with NASA.

The documentary began a mythology that the women were part of a secret NASA program that was stopped by unnamed nefarious forces simply because “they” didn't want to see a woman go to space.

A July 2, 2000 Los Angeles Times article quoted one of the test participants:

Jerri Sloan Truhill of the Mercury 13 group says she’d be happy if NASA would “stop denying the contribution we made and were prepared to make. Instead they treat us as interlopers, invading their space.”

The article also quoted test participant Jerrie Cobb:

On Sept. 12, 1961, five days before the women were to report to Pensacola, the tests were canceled. Cobb hopped a plane to Washington, D.C., and banged on doors until she found the chief of naval operations. “He told me,” Cobb remembers, “that the tests were canceled because NASA did not want the tests run on women.”

No one has ever produced any evidence of a conspiracy to “stop” the so-called Mercury 13 — one reason being there was no “Mercury 13.”

A 2018 NASA history office article documents the facts behind the Lovelace program.

Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program was a short-lived, privately-funded project testing women pilots for astronaut fitness in the early 1960s. Although nothing concrete resulted, the women who participated have since been recognized as trailblazers, whose ambitions to fly the newest and the fastest craft led them to be among the first American women to gain access to sophisticated aerospace medical tests.

The participants were never together in one place. The tests were typically performed on one or two women at a time, as Lovelace selected test subjects largely from a group of women pilots called the Ninety-Nines. Not all tests were performed on all participants.

The testing ended when Lovelace requested permission to use U.S. Navy equipment at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida. The testing so far had been at his private clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but now he wanted to use government resources. Since this was private research not funded or requested by a government agency, the request was denied.

No conspiracy.

Trying to force the resumption of testing, Cobb flew to Washington, DC. She finally found a sympathetic ear in Rep. Victor Anfuso (R-NY), who held two days of Congressional hearings in July 1962.

On July 18, 1962, after the first day of the hearings, the Orlando Sentinel ran an editorial cartoon mocking the hearings. Titled, “Congress to Study Woman's Place in Space — They Drive Cars, Don't They?” the cartoon depicted stereotypes of women in that period, including a rocket crash-landed on the Moon.

Three women testified that day — Jacqueline Cochran, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart whose flying bombers for delivery across the Atlantic during World War II led to the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program; Jerrie Cobb, who'd in the 1950s also delivered planes; and Janey Hart, a helicopter pilot who was the wife of Senator Phil Hart (D-MI).

The Associated Press report as published in the Boston Globe was headlined, “Blondes Ask Equality for Space Women.”

Three blondes argued before a House Space subcommittee that all they needed was the training to join the Mercury astronauts in orbit ...

Miss Cobb, who testifies the same way she flies — with her shoes off — said women are now prevented from becoming astronauts because NASA insists its spacecraft pilots be test pilots — a job limited to men.

NASA astronauts Scott Carpenter (left) and John Glenn testify before Congress on July 18, 1962. Image source: Newspapers.com.

On the second day of the hearings, NASA chief of human space flight George Low, as well as Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, testified before the committee.

Low said that six women had applied for the second group of astronauts being selected at that time. According to the Associated Press report, “... none of the six women among 250 applicants for the 5 to 10 new astronauts now being picked met all the stringent age and training requirements.”

Low added that the pool of qualified men is more than ample to meet the need for 40 to 50 astronauts who may be used in the next few years.

The article quoted the two astronauts as saying that whomever was chosen had to be a qualified test pilot, regardless of gender.

“The best qualified people, whatever their sex, color or creed, should be picked,” Glenn added ...

Carpenter, asked for an opinion about women in space, disagreed with Rep. James G. Fulton, R-Pa., who said space travel is not so much in the experimental stage that women should be barred.

“There are many unknowns,” Carpenter said. “I think as many as possible should be eliminated.”

Carpenter added that present standards for astronauts are not a matter of protecting women but of protecting the program.

The hearings ended after the second day. No action was taken.

It had been more than a year since President John F. Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, proposed sending a “man” (not a person) to the Moon by the end of the 1960s and returning “him” safely to the earth.

Kennedy proposed what eventually became known as Project Apollo to demonstrate that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

At the time of these hearings, the United States and the Soviet Union were waging the Cold War. If Kennedy had not placed a time limit on Apollo — the end of the decade — perhaps the lack of urgency would have permitted more consideration for training women to be test pilots.

But that decision had been made by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. According to a NASA history web site:

NASA originally intended to issue a general solicitation of applications for the position of “research astronaut-candidate,” and considered that several occupations besides test pilot might qualify. President Eisenhower, however, directed the agency to select its astronauts from the ranks of military test pilots; this would simplify selection, keep out undesirable applicants, and eliminate the need to run security checks on the candidates.

Why were there no female military test pilots in 1958?

During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces used women to deliver military aircraft overseas. According to a U.S. Army history web site:

Cochran served as director of WASP and its training division, while [Nancy Harkness] Love was director of the ferrying division. In the 16 months WASP existed, more than 25,000 women applied for training; only 1,879 candidates were accepted. Among them, 1,074 successfully completed the grueling program at Avenger Field — a better “wash-out” rate than 50 percent of male pilot cadets.

Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Image source: U.S. Army.

The WASPs were disbanded in December 1944. General Hap Arnold wrote:

When we needed you, you came through and have served most commendably under very difficult circumstances, but now the war situation has changed and the time has come when your volunteer services are no longer needed. The situation is that if you continue in service, you will be replacing instead of releasing our young men. I know the WASP wouldn't want that. I want you to know that I appreciate your war service and the AAF will miss you ...

Apparently there was only one female military test pilot during World War II.

Ann Baumgartner was a WASP pilot who was assigned to Wright Field Air Base in Dayton, Ohio. She flew various test flights at Dayton. “I was the first woman to fly a jet for nearly 10 years. I also flew some British bombers and the German JU-88,” she wrote. But she was turned out with the other WASPs when the program was terminated.

If the military had allowed women to apply for pilot training after World War II, some of them most likely would have qualified as test pilots.

But that's not the fault of NASA, or Project Mercury.

There's no evidence that any of the so-called “Mercury 13” participants had an engineering degree. Although many had extensive flight experience, none of them had test-pilot experience.

Contrast that with the résumés of the Mercury 7. Those pilots typically had engineering degrees, along with years of flying experimental aircraft, and some had combat experience.

Given the opportunity, women could have achieved the same but, for a dangerous rush program that had the highest national priority and international ramifications, military test pilots were the logical choice.

During the hearing, Glenn pointed out that the Lovelace Clinic tests had been only one small part of the astronauts' selection criteria.

In answer to other questions, Glenn said there has been a misunderstanding about the fact that 13 women pilots passed space tests given by the Lovelace Foundation at Albuquerque, N.M. One of them was Jerrie Cobb, a consultant to NASA, who plugged the girls-in-space idea before the subcommittee yesterday.

“They're such a minimum,” Glenn explained. “Those tests merely show if anything is wrong with you. As an analogy, my mother could probably pass the pre-season physical exam given the Washington Redskins. But I don't think she could play many games.”

The irony is that, while NASA chose military test pilots for its international prestige program, the Soviet Union secretly was recruiting candidates for the first space flight by a woman.

As these hearings were held, the Soviet Union was selecting and training women to be cosmonauts. The Soviet program viewed their spacecraft occupants more as passengers than actual fliers, so the woman recruits didn't have to meet the high standards of the American program. In November 1962, four finalists were given an honorary rank of lieutenant in the Soviet air force.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova launched in Vostok 6 to rendezvous with male cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky in Vostok 5.

She logged more flight time than all the Mercury missions combined to that point.

The Soviets achieved a propaganda triumph that NASA failed to anticipate because of its fixation on a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s.

By the time the United States landed on the Moon in July 1969, American and Soviet relations were about to enter an era of cooperation and eventually collaboration in space.

Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts docked in 1975, with crews visiting each other's ships.

The Space Shuttle program opened the ranks of NASA to civilians, and to women. Physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman to launch into space in June 1983.

In 1975, Captain Jane Holley became the first woman to graduate from the Edwards Air Force Base test pilot school, as a flight test engineer.

Capt. Jane L. Holley, the first female graduate of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. Image source: Air Force Test Center History Office.

In 1990, Eileen Collins was selected by NASA after graduating the Edwards test pilot program. She flew four Space Shuttle flights, commanding the last two, becoming the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission.

Once the wrong had been righted, women proved they could be military test pilots and NASA astronauts.

Just don't buy into the mythology that some grand conspiracy existed within NASA to stop them from flying in the 1960s.

If you are told this myth, reply with the truth. It's far more compelling.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Columbus Conundrum

January 14, 2004 ... Physicist Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver appear on the “PBS NewsHour.” Original video source: PBS NewsHour.

“If Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.”

— Professor Robert L. Park, “PBS NewsHour,” January 14, 2004

It's an argument as old as human spaceflight.

Why send a person, when a robot can do it more safely and cheaply?

The Project Apollo astronauts were preceded by robotic spacecraft. Project Ranger probes relayed pictures and science data as they approached and crashed into the Moon. Project Lunar Orbiter photographed potential Apollo landing sites. Project Surveyor robots landed on the Moon from 1966 to 1968, photographing the terrain and sampling the soil.

While NASA sent humans to return regolith samples, the Soviets sent robots.

Starting in September 1970, fourteen months after Apollo 11, the Soviets began returning samples from the Moon using robotic spacecraft.

Not all Soviet Luna missions were successful. Luna 15 landed on the Moon on July 21, 1969, the day after the Apollo 11 landing, but crashed on impact. But no lives were lost, much less risked.

Apollo astronauts returned 382 kilograms, while the Luna probes returned only 226 grams, tiny in comparison.

But Apollo was not intended to be a science mission. It was to demonstrate to the nations of Earth that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson's April 28, 1961 memorandum to President John F. Kennedy recommended a manned (not crewed, as in 1961 only men were in the American astronaut program) lunar excursion in response to the recent Soviet achievement of orbiting Yuri Gagarin.

Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.

During a November 21, 1962 meeting with Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb argued for increased funding for science programs. Kennedy replied, “I'm not that interested in space,” that the only justification for the fantastic expense was “we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.”

Project Apollo's objective was to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, proving that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union. Once that objective was achieved, no political will existed in the White House or Congress to continue, as the mission had been accomplished.

In the decades since, several Presidents have given speeches announcing new programs to resume human deep space expeditions.

None had the political, and therefore financial, support of Congress to succeed.

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush delivered his Vision for Space Exploration.

January 14, 2004 ... President George W. Bush delivers his Vision for Space Exploration speech at NASA Headquarters. Original video source: C-SPAN.

The VSE was a response to the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which stated that the “lack of an agreed national vision for human space flight” was a contributing cause to the loss of the orbiter Columbia on February 1, 2003. Bush's VSE was an effort to provide that vision.

Among the goals he articulated in his speech was, “we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”

To pay for it, Bush said he would reallocate $11 billion over the next five years from other NASA programs, and ask for a $1 billion increase over that same time.

VSE evolved into Project Constellation, which a 2009 commission found was “on an unsustainable trajectory.”

But on January 14, 2004, all that was in the future.

That evening, The PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer included a segment on Bush's VSE proposal. Journalist Ray Suarez interviewed two panelists, Professor Robert Park and former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver.

A physics professor at the University of Maryland, Dr. Park also represented the American Physical Society. During the program, he argued that sending humans was a waste of money, and that robots were a far safer and more efficient means of exploring the solar system.

A one-time executive director of the National Space Society, Garver had been NASA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy and Plans during the Clinton adminstration. She returned to NASA in 2009 as Deputy Administrator during President Obama's first term.

Garver would go on to become one of the fiercest critics of Project Constellation and it successor, the Space Launch System. But on January 14, 2004, in the private sector, Garver during the telecast expressed initial optimism about the VSE and the resumption of human deep space flight.

Park dismissed human space flight as “a romantic thing to do.” A one-time chair of the University of Maryland's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Park wanted the money spent on space telescopes and robotic probes.

The debate between the two that night is not particularly notable, but it reflects the seemingly eternal either/or debate regarding humans versus robots in space.

Dr. Park said:

You know, of course, this president's father stood on the steps of the Air and Space Museum in 1989 and made the same call. He said, “we're going back to the moon, we're going on to Mars.” He said, “like Columbus, we dream of shores we have not seen.” Well, if Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have.

Here's where Dr. Park went wrong.

Drones, of course, didn't exist in the late 15th Century.

But let's assume they did.

What would a drone have found?

Humans living on fertile land that must certainly was not the East Indies.

If you were the Spanish crown, what would have been your next step?

More drones?

Of course not.

There comes a point in time where humans must do the exploration.

(Or, in the case of the Spanish empire, conquest and subjugation. Drones couldn't subjugate the Aztecs.)

For all the progress in artificial intelligence, it seems unlikely that a fully autonomous self-aware robot will be available for humans to use in place of people for significant exploration.

Dr. Park cited the Spirit rover that had landed on Mars ten days earlier. He claimed it was far more capable than humans, because it could actually touch the soil and sense the air.

The problem, though, which remains today, is that rovers are not autonomous.

Depending on the alignment of the two planets, a one-way communication between Earth and Mars is anywhere from five to twenty minutes.

An Earth operator must receive the data transmitted by a rover and make a decision about where to send it next. The operator can only make a decision based on the limited information available.

A human on Mars can make decisions far more quickly and capably than the rover, or its Earth-bound operator.

One possible solution might be to place the operator in Mars orbit. The operator would use virtual reality goggles and gloves to operate the robot in real time. Any samples can be returned not directly to Earth, but to the Mars space station.

That problem neatly avoids the person having to risk descent in the Mars gravity well, and ascent back to the station.

What remains, however, is the problem of that person surviving in a hostile space environment.

Park claimed that, “Most of the solar system is closed to us,” because of radiation and high temperatures. Humans were not made for deep space, he believed.

This is where the Columbus analogy fails Dr. Park.

The purpose of the 1492 Columbus voyage was to test the explorer's hypothesis that a shorter trade route to the East Indies existed than the current land routes, or following the African coast line around the dangerous Cape of Good Hope.

Knowing Earth to be a sphere, it seemed logical that one could reach the East Indies by sailing west instead of east. Columbus miscalculated the distance, believing it much shorter than it actually was.

Columbus had been a navigator, and had become intimately familiar with westerly trade winds he thought could be used to sail west to China.

He did not know, of course, that the Americas were in the way.

Columbus was fundamentally wrong about Earth's circumference, and he was wrong about a direct route to China.

What Columbus did prove was that it was possible.

It was the Age of Sail. Just as today's spacecraft are limited by chemical propulsion, sailing ships for centuries were limited to available wind.

Humans eventually developed engines to provide propulsion. That problem was conquered. Why? Because humans needed to travel faster and safer.

If drones existed, then humans would not have travelled, and the need to conquer wind would not have existed.

Scurvy was another common problem during the Age of Sail. The early settlements were plagued by drought and disease. European colonists failed to incorporate into their diets foods rich in Vitamin C.

If the imperial powers had relied only on robotic crafts, they never would have figured out how humans could survive in distant hostile worlds, simply because there was no need.

If humans are to travel beyond low Earth orbit, in the 21st Century we need to find similar solutions. How do people survive solar radiation, the space equivalent of scurvy?

If we don't send them, then no investment is made in solving the problem.

The imperial powers were, of course, motivated by greed and profit, but also by their finite resources. Earth's resources are finite. It may not happen for decades, or for centuries, but eventually we'll run out of resources.

Sixty years after President Kennedy sent the United States to the Moon for political prestige, NASA and its international partner agencies plan to hope to return to the Moon later this decade with Project Artemis.

Sure, some international prestige is involved, but this time we're not trying to prove we're better than a rival nation.

This time, it's to figure out how to stay.

Although private companies built Project Apollo, they did so based on NASA engineering specifications. NASA owned the technology.

That's certainly true of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but those were dictated by Congress in 2010 to protect Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors from unemployment. They're jobs programs.

The rest of Project Artemis relies on the American private sector to provide services developed through competition and innovation.

The three ships Columbus used in 1492 were private trade ships hired to make the voyage.

An artist's concept of the Gateway, built by commercial and international partners. Image source: NASA.

A one-way trip to the Moon is about three days. Artemis astronauts may land directly on the lunar surface, or they may dock at Gateway, a space station made of commercial components. Unlike the International Space Station, Gateway will have its own solar electric propulsion system, capable of changing its orbit, or even leaving orbit to venture into cislunar space.

Space propulsion will advance, just as ship propulsion advanced from the Age of Sail, to the Age of Steam, the Age of Diesel, and the Age of Nuclear Power.

Artemis plans a semi-permanent crewed habitat at the Moon's South Pole. Robotic probes have collected evidence that frozen water ice may exist in craters there cloaked in permanent darkness.

Columbus and other early European sailors brought fresh water with them, which was used sparingly. Rain water was collected along the way, if it rained at all.

On today's ISS, robotic cargo ships periodically deliver fresh water, although water is constantly recycled, even from sweat and urine.

Much of the ISS food is freeze-dried. It's reconstituted with warm water for consumption.

That's not far off from what the Columbus crews did. Their food was dried, pickled, or salted to last up to a year, although maggots were a constant problem. When it was time to consume the dried food, the sailors added water, just as do the ISS crew.

Dr. Park died in April 2020 at age 89. As did his contemporary, Carl Sagan, Park delighted in debunking pseudoscience, or what he called “voodoo science.”

If I would have had the chance to discuss the matter with him, I might have agreed with him that there was no immediate reason, rational or “romantic,” to send people back to the Moon or to Mars.

I would, however, have argued that he misinterpreted the nature of the Columbus voyage, and the other great voyages of exploration (and conquest) that were to follow.

The Age of Sail took almost four hundred years to pass. It might take that long for us to figure out how humans can survive on the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.

If we only ever send robots, then we'll never learn how humans can live safely off the planet. It may not be necessary tomorrow, the next decade, or even the next century.

But it is inevitable.

Even when the day comes that artificially intelligent robots can perform the same tasks as a human, they will be in service of humans.

Robots will reduce the risk for the humans to follow.

I would tell Dr. Park, yes, send the drone first if you must.

But the humans must follow.

If not ... Why did you send the drone?

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Matter of Perspective

An artist's concept of the view from a Space Perspective flight. Image source: Space Perspecive.

Space Perspective announced today that they're now booking flights from Kennedy Space Center starting in 2024.

Introducing a new era in luxury travel experiences: Space Perspective reimagines the thrill of space exploration with the world’s most radically gentle voyage to space. Space Explorers and travel adventurers looking to upgrade their bucket list can now savor 360-degree views of planet Earth from 20 mi/30 km above in a luxurious six hour trip, inside Spaceship Neptune, propelled by a state-of-the-art space balloon the size of a football stadium. Up to eight guests can have the sensational experience from the comfort of plush, reclining seats in a beautifully appointed capsule, complete with a bar and a bathroom, for $125,000 each.

If you're looking for a trip to “space”, this isn't it.

Sure, it'll be a pretty view, but it's not “space.”

Many U.S. government agencies define “space” as beginning at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers. That number can be traced back to the X-15 program. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to military pilots who exceeded that altitude.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and other international agencies use the Karman Line as the definition of where “space” begins. Hungarian mathematician Theodore von Kármán in the 1950s argued that the point where orbital dynamics forces exceed aerodynamic forces was a sensible place to set the limit. Based on data available at the time, that worked out to about 100 kilometers.

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell in October 2020 wrote that, using modern sources of data, “von Kármán’s argument places the line close to 80 km, largely independent of atmospheric variations and satellite properties.”

80 kilometers or 100 kilometers, either definition is far higher than Space Perspective's capabilities.

Earth's atmospheric layers. Image source: NASA.

The 30-kilometer limit for Space Perspective is the upper layer of the stratosphere. The highest altitude reached by a skydiver jumping out of a high-altitude balloon was Alan Eustace in 2014. His altitude was 135,890 feet, or about 41.4 kilometers. The uncrewed Japanese research balloon BU60-1 in 2002 reached an altitude of 53 kilometers. These balloons reached the lower reaches of the mesosphere.

The highest altitude reached by the X-15 was 314,688 feet (95.9 km) by Robert White in 1962. The highest altitude by a ground-launched airplane was 123,523 feet (37.6 km) by Russian pilot Alexandr Fedotov in 1977.

The view of Kennedy Space Center from an altitude of 30 kilometers, as seen during the SpaceX CRS-21 flight on December 6, 2020. Image source: SpaceX.

This image from the fuselage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 during launch on December 6, 2020 shows the view of the Space Coast from an altitude of 30 kilometers, the limit for Space Perspective.

Two other companies offering suborbital adventure tourism flights are Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Those are rocket-powered vehicles.

In May 2021, the Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity reached an altitude of 55.45 miles, or 89 kilometers. A ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight costs $250,000.

A January 2021 Blue Origin New Shepard flight reached an altitude of 350,827 feet, or 106.9 kilometers. Blue Origin has yet to announce a ticket price.

Other companies have offered adventure tourism flights from the Kennedy Space Center runway.

Starfighters signed a Space Act Agreement in 2009 to offer flights on privately-operated Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft. At one time, Starfighters offered suborbital space plane training flights, but no suborbital space planes have flown from KSC. Starfighters now offers F-104 pilot training programs.

Swiss Space Systems promised suborbital flights by 2015, but the company failed in 2017, amid allegations of financial shenanigans.

SpaceX is now offering orbital adventure tourism flights from Pad 39A. The Inspiration4 mission is scheduled to launch with four civilians in September. They'll spend about three days in orbit.

Starting in 2022, SpaceX will transport Axiom Space customers to the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers).

If you want to go into “space”, you'll have to pay for a ride on a rocket-powered vehicle.

If you want to see “space” but not get close to it, Space Perspective might be an option.