Archive for the ‘Futurist’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

LEGO is releasing a “women of NASA” set.

The Apollo 11 capsule Columbia has started its around the country tour with a new exhibit at Space Center Houston: Destination Moon.

This Lyft commercial referencing the Apollo program is cute, but is missing a shout out to Michael Collins.

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, conducted the first test fire of their new BE-4 rocket engine.

In Orbit

The ISS Expedition 53 crew completed the second and third spacewalks in their October series. All planned tasks were completed successfully, leaving the space station with some new cameras and a repaired robotic arm. The rest of the year on ISS will be focused on science research, with some critical deliveries onboard a Cygnus resupply and SpaceX Dragon resupply.

Since my last post on October 9th, there have been four orbital rocket launches:

  • October 11 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two geostationary communication satellites. The first stage was a previously flown booster and was recovered on a droneship.
  • October 13 – A Russian Rokot launched carrying an Earth obesrvation payload for ESA.
  • October 14 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur carrying an unmanned Progress resupply bound for the ISS.
  • October 15 – ULA launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a national security payload for the NRO.

The Progress freighter docked successfully two days after launch.

Below are a few of the best pictures taken onboard the ISS from the past two weeks. If you want to help maintain the amazing archive of millions of pictures of Earth taken from ISS, now there’s a way! Check out Cosmo Quest’s new Image Detective project.

https://twitter.com/astro_paolo/status/920369795111051264

ISS astronauts tried to capitalize on a cultural craze down here on Earth with this recent video:

Out There

Hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement, LIGO made another big discovery using gravitational waves: the first signal from the collision of two neutron stars was detected and confirmed. Phil Plait has a wonderful poetic post explaining what this means for our understanding of the universe.

2016 In Review – Part I

2015 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

Part I – Exploration

Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.

It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.

While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.

Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.

In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.

On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.

The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.

The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!

Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.

The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Buzz Aldrin has published a new book titled “No Dream is Too High.”

United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a new partnership. Bigelow will launch their enormous BA-330 expandable module on a ULA Atlas rocket.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 recovered first stage returned to port last week after landing on a droneship the week before. Check out the pictures.

An online auction for a camera lens used on the moon during Apollo 15 is now open.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who was in the news last year for pledging millions of dollars to SETI, has announced his plan for a robotic interestellar mission called Breakthrough Starshot.

The last external tank from the Space Shuttle program left Michoud in Louisiana last week on an ocean voyage to California, where it will become a part of the display with Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Orbital ATK and Intelsat have struck a deal that may lead to the first commercial use of “robotic satellite servicing”.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope unexpected entered emergency mode last week, but has since been successfully recovered. The cause of the event is still being investigated.

The new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was installed on the Node 3 module of ISS on Saturday. Here is a time-lapse of it being moved from the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft via the robotic arm.

It’s been a while since I have shared links to some of my favorite tweets from ISS here. The three US astronauts onboard have been furiously posting beautiful pictures of Earth pretty much every day. Here are just a few recent ones from just the past couple of days.

And here is a quick video from Jeff Williams showing us around the cupola and their cameras.

Around the Solar System

This is pretty cool. An amateur astronomer captured a video of a fireball in Jupiter’s atmosphere, as a large asteroid or some other object slammed into the planet.

Interestellar: the return of hard sci-fi (or it never left)?

This post is overdue. Interstellar, a huge success of a film, both critically and financially, has been out for almost a month. It has a rating of 8.9 out of 10 based on user reviews at IMDb and holds the #15 spot on the IMDb top 250. By this point, if you are a fan of space or sci-fi films, you have likely already found the time to see it.

I am not going to write a point-by-point plot breakdown of Interstellar, nor am I going to pick apart the science of the movie. Those kinds of reviews, of varying harshness and quality, have already been written variously by fans and detractors of the film. Such a post by me wouldn’t sway your choice to see the movie anyway. Instead, I’d like to take a look at what appears to be a changing trend in the style and content of sci-fi movies in the 21st century, and what the recent success of movies like Gravity and Interstellar may mean for the future of science fiction films. Is there a trend back towards hard sci-fi?

Wikipedia’s entry on “Hard Science Fiction” defines the genre as:

Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both… The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible.

So which space-based sci-fis are hard sci-fis? A couple classic examples most people might be familiar with would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Solaris (1972).  These films were released right around the peak of the Space Race and the Apollo Program. The public could see and understand the romance and drama of  a simpler space exploration story without marauding aliens, warp drive, or laser weapons.

Another tempting franchise to include, Star Trek, was clearly influenced by the optimism of space exploration in the ’60s, as well. Star Trek, like the films listed above, was also in stark contrast to the earlier space operas that were little different than a cowboy adventure, only set in space. However, we can’t call Star Trek “hard” – after all, it has the warp drives and laser weapons I just ruled out. Star Trek has the veneer of science-focused storytelling, but lacks the “…credible and rigorous… use of current scientific and technical knowledge…”. However, in today’s era of the impossible physics of superhero and Transformers movies, which are clearly not science-based, the Star Trek of the 1960s sure looks sciencey by comparison.

So where do modern films fall on this spectrum? When you consider the most popular science fiction films of the ’90s and 2000s (Armaggedon, Star Wars, The Avengers, The Matrix, District 9, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Guardians of the Galaxy), there sure is a lot of fantasy going around. Even a little bit of science could go a long way. So is Interstellar really “hard”, or is it just another space fantasy pretending to know what it is talking about? Let’s look at some of the key science or engineering points of the film to get a feel for its realism (note, spoilers below):

  1. The world may have trouble feeding a growing population in the near future, and may suffer a population collapse as a result: This is plausible and backed up by a growing scientific consensus, due to climate change and population growth.
  2. NASA can’t work miracles: The film depicts NASA plausibly – having a hard time getting stuff done in a reduced budget environment. They can’t build the large space stations they want to and instead have to launch rockets and spacecraft of modest size to carry out their missions.
  3. Worm holes exist and it is possible to travel through them: Both facts are theoretically possible, mathematically.
  4. It takes a very long time for a spaceship to get from Earth to Saturn: Yup.
  5. Time dilation would occur on a planet orbiting a large black hole: this is the meat of why the film producers hired noted physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant. The water planet orbiting Gargantua was very plausible.
  6. Such a planet would have huge tidal waves: No. The planet would likely be tidally locked. There would not be a moving tide on the planet.
  7. There can be such a thing as frozen clouds on an alien planet: I’m not really sure what a “frozen cloud” even is.
  8. Don’t open an airlock if your spacecraft isn’t properly docked: plausible results here! And no sound of the explosion in space.
  9. High spin-rate spacecraft docking: not likely possible at the number of RPMs depicted in the film. But the characters are at least shown experiencing high-Gs in the scene.

That’s just a sample of some of the things I noticed (items 1, 3, 5, and 6 backed up by people smarter than me). So it seems clear that the filmmakers did make an effort to get many things right in Interstellar, while at the same time taking some creative license for the sake of stunning visuals or dramatic effect. Interstellar is probably somewhere in the middle-ground; farther towards “hard” than  Star Trek, but not at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which  many people have been comparing Interstellar to, due to certain plot elements.

So, this is why the definition of hard sci-fi I quoted above mentions “trying” to be accurate. If we are going to be strict about the definition and say a hard sci-fi must be perfectly scientifically accurate, it may be very difficult to find a movie that is a true hard sci-fi tale. So, in order to draw the line somewhere – and since this is my blog – I am going to loosen up my definition of “hard sci-fi” but give more parameters than just “trying” to be accurate. Let’s define a hard sci-fi as having astronauts instead of adventurers (see, Dave of 2001 instead of Kirk of Star Trek), having realistic spacecraft technology (for example, artificial gravity is only possible through centrifugal force), and no unreasonable alien encounters. I like to think of these kinds of movies as “astronaut movies” – they are the ones that feel realistic to guys like me that work at NASA.

Using this definition, I have compiled a list of all the astronaut movies since Apollo 13 in 1995 (the pinnace of what a successful astronaut movie can be). By my count, there have been about 20 movies since Apollo 13 that have either been fair “astronaut movies” or have come close, but fail my smell test in some way. I have colored films that are clear successes in red and indie films (for which a flop/hit designation based on gross sales is meaningless) as blue. Three of the other movies made more money than they cost but not enough for me to firmly declare them as hits.

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 9.30.41 PM

Note: Budget estimates taken from IMDB.com and gross sales figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com

Two things stand out to me in this data. The first is that even when we include the “fantasy” movies that are almost astronaut movies, but not quite, you still see a long drought of mainstream successful films of about 10 years or more. Second, in recent years there is a ramp-up in “indie” films in the astronaut genre, which is promising if you were a fan of MoonSunshine, or Europa Report.

Leaving in the three campy films of Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Space Cowboys makes the story look a bit better. But if you don’t like camp, then there really was a true drought of a good mainstream astronaut based film for nearly two decades. By all accounts, Prometheus (which I have not seen) is so full of non-scientific plot elements, not to mention aliens, that I probably shouldn’t include it. But since it features astronauts in spacesuits, I thought it was close enough to my definition to at least get a comparison.

It seems to me that Gravity and Interstellar signal a true return of hard sci-fi films to the mainstream. With Ridley Scott currently working on The Martian, starring Matt Damon along with other big names, the trend is going to continue for now. And if The Martian stays true to the source material, it really will be the hardest astronaut film since Apollo 13.

Those of us who pride ourselves on being nerds or geeks and have heard of Sunshine, Europa Report or Gattaca, or liked Red Planet, would be justified in saying that hard sci-fi never left film, it just went underground. But the fact that you have seen all those great films does not affect the public consciousness; they are not becoming a part of culture. What becomes culture is a mainstream movie that everyone has heard of and seen. It may seem silly, but a film like Gravity can do a simple thing like remind Americans that their tax dollars are paying for an International Space Station. A film like Interstellar may get a kid interested in black holes and she may voluntarily read some physics books. Why not get a little science along with your entertainment?

A good sci-fi film is still all about entertainment first, hard or soft. But a good hard sci-fi film usually has the side effect of being more nuanced, due to it being anchored in reality. This nuance allows such films, usually, to explore real life themes that can be both social and scientific. At a time when the public’s commitment to our space program (be it manned or not) is unclear, films that show that the simple act of exploration is both exciting and hip can go a long way to getting the public back onboard with why we have a space program in the first place. So, despite the fact that I only give Interstellar  a 7 out of 10 – and I don’t think it is anywhere near the 15th best movie of all time – I say it is an awesome adventure ride that deserves the hype. The film should be seen both for its visuals and the questions it poses:

What cost are you willing to pay for the future of humanity? Is man’s nature inherently selfish? Can love of family overcome that inherent nature? Or does love simply lead to more selfish acts? Is humanity worth saving if in the restarting, cultural history is lost?

These kinds of questions are the hallmark of a film that makes an effort to reflect reality back at us, rather than let us escape into fantasy. This is the kind of space adventure that will get people talking and thinking. I say give us more! Go see Interstellar.

Weekly Links

Lots of cool stuff this week. Read all the way to the end for a special treat of a video.

Down to Earth

The James Webb Space Telescope, under assembly and testing at Goddard Spaceflight Center, did a full secondary mirror deploy test in November. NASA published this timelapse of the test, which gives a great sense of the immense scale of this space telescope. Note that this test is with the actual flight hardware.

The iconic – and very old – countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was disassembled last week to make way for a new modern clock, which should be ready for the EFT-1 launch later this week.

Admit it, whenever you are catching up on space news, you are wondering what will happen next with the two recent (but unrelated) space accidents – the loss of SpaceShipTwo and an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket. Well, not a lot has happened in recent weeks. A couple little things have happened, such as Land Rover offering alternatives prizes in their Galactic Discovery Competition and initial damage assessments coming in from the Wallops Island launch pad. In the meantime, you can read this to-the-point discussion of what the accidents say about risk aversion (or acceptance) in the industry.

In Orbit

Last week, NASA and Made In Space were very excited to announce the first replacement part which was printed aboard ISS with the first 3D printer in space. The part was a simple plastic cover for the printer itself, but the point is the proof of concept. Much excitement surrounds the prospect of 3D printers in space – with the Made In Space printer being the first of several printers to make it aboard the space station. This article from the Space Review puts the idea in perspective, by summarizing the findings of the National Research Council Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing.

Also on the ISS last week, the rather large “SpinSat” was deployed using the Japanese robotic arm. SpinSat is a 125 pound satellite designed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab to test out their ground surveillance technologies using lasers. You can read more about it in an NRL press release here. Here are some pictures that ISS commander Butch Wilmore took of the satellite being deployed.

Later this month, the 5th official SpaceX Dragon resupply mission to the ISS will launch from Florida aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is currently set for December 16th. Although every one of these missions is still exciting (if you haven’t seen a Falcon 9 launch, get down there), this mission will be especially interesting to follow because of what will happen to the rocket’s first stage. On previous flights, SpaceX has practiced “controlled landing” of the first stage in the open ocean. On this flight, the rocket will actually land on an autonomous floating platform. Elon Musk revealed a picture of the craft on his twitter, and I admit, it’s pretty slick. In addition, “grid fins” will help the rocket’s guidance on entry – here’s a picture of those as well.

The biggest story of this week should be the launch of EFT-1 (or Exploration Flight Test 1), which is the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which is the new NASA exploration vehicle. Although the spacecraft will be flying aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy, rather than the Space Launch System (which isn’t ready yet), this is still a major milestone for NASA. The four-and-a-half hour, two-orbit mission will be the first non-ISS spacecraft operations from NASA’s Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center since STS-135 landed in 2011. Flight controllers (colleagues of mine, no less!) have been training hard for months and years for this first dress rehearsal of our new program.

Parabolic Arc has a great summary of the mission and the Planetary Society put together a very readable timeline of the mission’s events. The launch window opens at just after 7 AM EST on Thursday morning, December 4th. I highly suggest you tune in!

Around the Solar System

As if not to be outdone by EFT-1, a big moment in human spaceflight, the world of robotic planetary science has a big launch this week as well: Hayabusa-2. This is a JAXA follow-up to the first Hayabusa mission, which successfully returned samples of asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa-2’s overall design is at its core the same as the first mission, with some important upgrades (“lessons learned” have no doubt been incorporated). The mission will hopefully launch from Tanegashima on Wednesday, December 3rd, and make it’s way to asteroid 1999 JU3 by 2018, where it will collect samples to return to Earth in 2020.

And last but not least, check out this awesome imaginative short film about the future of humanity throughout the solar system: Wanderers.

Why is suborbital space more exciting than NASA’s latest exploration plans?

Earlier today, Virgin Galactic flew the first powered flight of their SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft.

In case you are out of the loop, Virgin Galactic is the company that intends to fly paying tourists to suborbital space on their 8 passenger spacecraft. The company was founded after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private company to reach space with their SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic was formed when Sir Richard Branson saw dollar signs after the X Prize was won and decided to partner with Scaled Composites to design an upgrade to SpaceShipOne that could make a profit off of tourism. Virgin Galactic has around 500 customers already with down payments ready for a quick suborbital hop – for a mere several hundred thousand dollars – as soon as the SpaceShipTwo flight test program ends later this year.

From my view here at Johnson Space Center, as a member of the International Space Station flight control team, SpaceShipTwo should look like small potatoes. The max altitude of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo each is a meager 110-120km – barely past the Karman Line, or the official border of space. And yet, this morning I found myself waiting for news of Virgin Galactic’s flight in eager anticipation, like a typical fan boy.

Let’s look at some other space news to see if maybe I’m just a big fan boy all the time?

Earlier this month, the White House released their federal budget proposal for 2014, which includes the exciting prospect of  funding “for a robotic mission to rendezvous with a small asteroid—one that would be harmless to Earth—and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit”. This is classic stuff. Exactly what most space advocates would say we should be spending our NASA tax dollars on. This idea combines robotic planetary exploration with human spaceflight (astronauts will visit the rock once it is in Earth orbit) with the practical application of planetary defense. Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I would be happy to spend my career working on. So why am I underwhelmed by this and excited by Virgin Galactic?

The likelihood of either of these missions failing is reasonably high. Both are high risk. But, I think the key difference is in the type of risk we are talking about. Virgin Galactic has a high risk of failure due to the challenges of spaceflight, and the reaction from their shareholders and customers if and when they have a major failure. Rockets fail. Accidents happen. People die. The company already lost three employees in 2007 in a rocket test stand explosion, which surprisingly did not slow down development much. Virgin is facing the same kind of risk that aerospace pioneers have always had when operating at “the edge of the envelope.” This is understood and accepted in the industry. But since they are trying to send rich comedians like Russell Brand to space and not trained test pilots, I’m not sure the program could sustain itself after a fatal accident.

By contrast, I think the risk that NASA’s new asteroid mission faces has largely to do with politics and little to do with the risks of high performance spaceflight.

In the same year that SpaceShipOne successfully earned Scaled Composites the Ansari X Prize, US President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which evolved into the Constellation Program. Over the next 6 years, Constellation progressed as most government aerospace projects due – with steady progress, but a growing budget. Eventually, in 2010, the new Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, taking NASA back to square one with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program also on the horizon. In the meantime, Virgin continued steady development of their space plane – admittedly, with their own budget growing past expectations – and here we are less than ten years later looking at paying customers flying to space by the end of the year.

So, to answer to my rhetorical question…

The reality is that the chances of the political winds in Washington cancelling or underfunding an exciting Near-Earth Asteroid mission seems higher than the chances of SpaceShipTwo failing in flight, based on historical evidence. Thus, I am watching the skies for successful suborbital tourism with eager anticipation, while I also read about political progress in NASA exploration missions with cautious optimism.

In the meantime, you should support organizations like The Planetary Society, who hope to show lawmakers the benefits of space exploration of all kinds. This kind of lobbying seeks to secure steady funding for NASA to prevent the kind of stop-and-go programs that has most of us jaded to taxpayer funded exploration. With more excited enthusiasts showing support and private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX posting more successes, the future may be brighter. But in the end a rocket’s flame is more convincing than a balance sheet, and that’s really what has me cheering for Virgin Galactic. Results.

SpaceShipTwo in flight on April 29,2013 (via @VirginGalactic)

Interesting Economics

Last weekend, the six-man crew onboard the ISS got a special delivery from Earth. The third in what we hope will be a long line of SpaceX Dragon capsules was grabbed by the space station robot arm on Sunday morning. It didn’t take very long after the Dragon was firmly attached for the crew to start working diligently to get the hatches open and get to the cargo inside, even though it was supposed to be partly their day off.

Why the rush? Well if you had only eaten fresh food a few times in the last four months you would be excited too! About 2-4 cargo deliveries will happen during an astronaut’s stay on ISS – so that means you only get to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet for a few weeks of your stay.

I was on shift in ISS mission control on Sunday when the crew got the hatch open and you bet they wanted to know where the bags of apples were stored away. Not only did they find the expected NASA manifested bag of apples, tomatoes, and other items, but SpaceX had hidden away a special care package of extra apples and oranges. Their excitement was clear and I’m sure they had a good dinner that night.

What I think comes to light in this case is the interesting economics of supplying a space station, or I suppose any remote operating base. An orange is cheap – your neighbor’s tree might drop some over the fence into your yard and they would never know they were missing nor probably care. But the cost of launching those oranges to ISS makes them worth a lot – not quite equivalent to gold by weight, but getting close. Imagine if the trip to the grocery store cost you 10,000 times more than the groceries themselves? That’s a cost of living that would make even San Franciscans cringe.

This is obviously one important reason that spaceflight is so expensive. By having companies like SpaceX to run supply missions, launch costs can be reduced through efficiency and frequency. But even so, launch costs can only drop by so much. Thus, we will never truly be a spacefaring species unless we learn to be self-sufficient. The European colonies in America only prospered when they learned to live off of the local resources. As long as oranges are worth $2,000, we will be stuck in low earth orbit like some colonists in a coastal fort waiting for the next ship from England.

Someday the lessons we are slowly learning about self-sufficiency on ISS and elsewhere (like bases in Antarctica) will take us outward – but until then I would hate to be the astronauts up there stuck with the guilt of eating a $2,000 orange. What does it feel like to know that so much effort went into getting you just a few bites of fruit?

Anniversaries

December 7th is remembered every year for the Japanese attach on Pearl Harbor and the United States being forced into World War II. While I think Pearl Harbor – and everything surrounding WWII – is something that should never leave the public consciousness, I will leave those remembrances to others this year, because I want to talk about another significant event from December 7th.

On December 7th, 1972, 40 years ago today, the last Moon rocket launched the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the Moon*. This anniversary is particularly interesting to me personally this year because I started my current job at NASA in 2009 and was here for the 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11 and then later Apollo 13.

Scott's tie was much more era-appropriate

My friend and I in “costume” for the Apollo 11 40th Anniversary event on July 20, 2009

The 4 years I have worked my flight control job feels like a long time. I feel confident in my job and no longer feel like a newbie. A lot has happened in the ISS program and I am proud of many professional and personal milestones since the above picture was taken. But then again, the 3.5 years since July 2009 isn’t so long at all. I only recently received a “specialist” certification that gives me full responsibility in my flight controller job. If I imagine myself transported to a NASA flight controller job in the  1970s, I would barely have had enough time to build up expertise as an Apollo systems flight controller between the first and last lunar landings. July 1969 to December 1972. Wham bam thank you ma’am. No more humans on the moon.

I never met Neil Armstrong – although I had the privilege of seeing all of the Apollo 11 crew speak at the 40th anniversary celebration – but I did meet Eugene Cernan at a book signing once. Cernan was the Apollo 17 commander (and author of a very good space-age memoir, The Last Man On The Moon)**. Cernan even today at 78 years old he is an advocate for continued civil commitment to human spaceflight. He often testifies before congress and appears on TV (Fox News likes him). Despite his vocalness, I haven’t seen anything from Cernan about today’s anniversary. There have been no emails to JSC employees about an Apollo 17 anniversary celebration, no interviews with Cernan or other moonwalkers, and very little online discussion in general (CollectSpace and Universe Today articles are pretty minimal).

I think this is a sign of the times. We are in a “gap” as everyone likes to say. NASA is between domestic launch programs. Everyone is waiting to see who will have the next US launched human mission. In commercial space, a lot of optimism and a flurry of development activity during the aughts has left us still waiting for the first suborbital tourism flights (they’ve been 5 years away for 10 years). Optimism is sorely lacking, also due to a budgetary forecast for NASA that’s not stellar – to say nothing of “the fiscal cliff” everyone has been talking about. And yet, space bigwigs continue to find the energy to start new spacefight startups, the latest of which is Golden Spike: a commercial venture to fly multi-billion dollar missions to the moon and make a profit off of it. Their stated goal is to make their first manned flight of this campaign by 2020. So maybe they can be ready in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019? The optimist in me wants to hope that someone can – whether it is Golden Spike or not – and that maybe the excitement wont pass us by in 4 quick years and then again be lost to history. It would be a shame to make it back and be done again by 2022. Let’s go somewhere to stay.

*One more Saturn V (albeit with only two stages) was launched in 1973. We can reminisce about the long past glory of the Saturn V in May next year.

**Cernan is one of the 8 still living moonwalkers.

Musk is no Stark, but has good ideas

It has been said that if there is a person out there in the real world that approximates Tony Stark – of the Marvel comic book universe – then it is Elon Musk. Unfortunately, his speaking ability is several orders of magnitude below the scripted dynamicism of Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man films. I guess I’m willing to give Elon a bit of a pass for being a real person.

I wanted to write a short post about the ambitions of SpaceX because their CEO was on somewhat of a press tour of England (or Britain? I’m not really sure) during which he discussed his ideas for Mars colonization and methane powered rockets. If you like video, Mr. Musk talks through some of his ideas below. Or you can read a very detailed summary over at Flight Global of his comments while at the Royal Aeronautical Society.

I like the relentless optimism of Mr. Stark Musk. However, I really wish he would stop laughing off malfunctions and admit when there is an issue that needs to be worked out – like the Merlin engine failure on SpaceX’s recent ISS cargo resupply flight. Calling it “an anomaly and not a failure” doesn’t change what happened. SpaceX needs to show a string of successes before they will really start to be taken seriously when it comes to talk of 50 ton-to-orbit rockets. The fact that they are talking about being involved in such varied projects as Planetary Resources and Stratolaunch is exciting, but they need to be careful not to spread themselves too thin.

This all started when I tried to watch the below lecture…

But got distracted wishing reality could more approximate fiction…

Maybe if he tried making an entrance via sky dive – maybe crossing Tony Stark with Felix Baumgartner – I would be more endeared to him personally.

The ISS as an engineering test bed

Last week the Expedition 32 crew celebrated their successful spacewalk to repair a Main Bus Switching Unit outside ISS. This spacewalk followed one the week before that failed to complete the same task. Hundreds of people spent the days between the two EVAs building and testing tools and procedures and replanning the whole timeline to allow for the success that we had on September 5th. The optimist will celebrate the ingenuity and resolve of NASA to get the job done – the pessimist or cynic will lament all the time wasted on ISS maintenance when we should be doing science. Clearly, my pessimist (perhaps a strawman, I admit) is missing the point.

I often get frustrated trying to justify space exploration, and especially the ISS, to people that do not share my innate love of spaceflight. Most space enthusiasts – I’m sure many readers of my blog – know what I’m talking about. Much like skeptics debating young Earth creationists, we have a lot of practice and have developed some nice lists of great talking points (most effective when delivered by Neil DeGrasse Tyson). Nevertheless, people that aren’t impressed by spaceflight are still often hard to sway – even when you explain that spending on the space industry isn’t just launching money into space, but is investing in technology and business here on Earth. I’m going to make an argument about the value of the ISS here, but my argument already assumes you agree that spaceflight is worth it, and that we should eventually send humans to impressive destinations like the moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter (so Lawrence Krauss will not be impressed). If you still need to be convinced that these things are worth it, then I send you to Carl Sagan.

What I want to point out to those that question the ISS as a useful step in humanity’s road to the stars is that it is about more than just crystal growth, microgravity fire, and spiders in space. ISS research is interesting, and has real returns, but to try to justify the scale and cost of the project over the last 3 decades by just the science being done is to miss the point. Of course, the fact that there are humans in orbit all day every day every year is a philosophical point that you can’t put a price on – maybe not enough of humanity knows about ISS for this fact to make an impact. But what I want to talk about is the engineering value of ISS. Do not be fooled by the people that want to convince you that ISS has us “stuck” in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The technical ranks of the ISS program are filled with people that dream of Mars and see what we are doing now as a way to get there.

You can’t send people to Mars without making the spacecraft and its crew significantly more independent than the Apollo spacecraft or the ISS. With Apollo, you could always just run home if you have a problem (like we did on Apollo 13) and on ISS much of the system operations and troubleshooting is done by ground controllers in real time – not to mention the Soyuz can serve as an escape capsule in a pinch. On an interplanetary cruise, if your systems don’t work and work well, you’re dead. Scary and simple.

For instance, a Mars mission with our current life support technology would be dicey. ISS has the first attempt at a real closed loop life support system (we call it Regen ECLSS). It works, but we do a lot of maintenance on it, more than would be feasible on an interplanetary flight with no hope of new spare parts or tools. I think of the ISS as an ECLSS test bed for these future missions. I would expect the next generation of hardware to vastly improve on the ISS systems as a direct result of lessons learned. It makes the time and money spent troubleshooting the ISS systems worth it, although we don’t see those returns now.

As the ISS ages, more things will break as a matter of course. In the summer of 2010 we had to replace a cooling pump that had been running for years, followed by the decade old MBSU we fixed last week. Both of these repairs took 2 EVAs or more (the pump module took 3). We are going to quickly improve our techniques for doing these repairs while also getting better and better at spacewalks and learning lessons that will make the designs of these components better in their next iterations. Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of cumulative spacewalking records.

ISS repairs gain EVA experience

The MBSU repairs for Williams and the cooling pump for Wheelock have earned them a huge amount of EVA experience. We can only expect this trend to continue over the next decade of ISS operations. Certain repairs are expected and there are many working groups at NASA who are already preparing “next-worst-failure” plans for how we will tackle them. Hopefully no daring Bruce Willis style spacewalks will ever be needed in future missions, but it would be folly not to plan for needing to go EVA while on interplanetary cruise. When the ISS program ends (be it in 8, 15, or 20 years depending who you ask) we will be well prepared with a vast pool of experience from the Space Shuttle and ISS programs to press on to the future. To be sure, the Orion program is already taking our hard earned lessons into account.

When you also consider that ISS will surely be used for Mars analog missions and endurance spaceflights before it is done, it is clear that ISS is an important learning platform. Every generation wishes that it will be the one to go to Mars, so it is understandable that there is more disappointment lately than optimism. I am confident that when we do finally go we will know what we are doing, thanks in great part to lessons learned as the ISS ages.

Ad astra!