Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Weekly Links

It was a bit of a slow week in spaceflight, with only one rocket launch of note and a few bureaucratic developments. Meanwhile, the people of Nepal were hit hard by a major earthquake and over 3,000 are dead. USA Today has a list of charitable organizations (such as UNICEF, Red Cross, World Food Program, and more) that are mounting relief efforts. Here is the link. I gave to American Red Cross.

Down to Earth

NASA’s decision on the next set of contracts for ISS cargo resupply has been delayed until September. This is the re-bid of the contract currently being fulfilled by SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

The US House of Representatives has marked up their first draft of a spending bill for NASA which includes both 2016 and 2017. There is some good news is that the overall NASA budget is going up, pretty much matching the increase requested by the White House. However, the bill from Congress has a significant difference in funding levels for exploration systems and Earth science.

ESA could join NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned to launch in 2022, by providing a lander of some kind. Cool!

ABC released a trailer for “The Astronaut Wives Club”. Check it out.

In Orbit

An Ariane 5 rocket launched from French Guiana today with a pair of communications satellites. SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch is currently scheduled for tomorrow, from Florida.

Canada has budgeted support of the ISS through 2024 in their latest federal budget. Hooray!

This past week, many in the scientific community celebrated 25 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit. In fact, many not in the scientific community were also celebrating!

With operations planned until at least 2020, Hubble will likely overlap in operations with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.

Around the Solar System

The intriguing bright spots seen by the Dawn spacecraft on the asteroid Ceres have come back into view. Check out this imagery from the mission!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.

Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.

Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.

Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.

Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).

The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):

In Orbit

SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.

And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.

Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!

Book Review: Altered Space Series by Gerald Brennan

When I bought myself my first e-reader last month, a small wi-fi enabled Amazon Kindle, I was looking forward to all the common advantages expounded by their advocates: portability, lower book prices, etc. I also was hoping to supplement the constant LCD screen time I find in my life these days with something more relaxing. I was a nerd growing up and used to read constantly (often at the expense of my social life or studies). These days I find myself spending hours staring at an iPhone or computer screen keeping up with my favorite blogs, and the stack of new books beside my bed growing larger. What I did not expect was that my Kindle would open up a whole new genre of fiction.

Amazon knows me very well – recommending each new space memoir as it is released (many of which are still in that unread pile beside my bed, including last year’s Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong biographies) – and as soon as I registered my new Kindle to my account, I started getting Kindle Store recommendations as well. On the first page was a short story that caught my eye immediately: Zero Phase – Apollo 13 on the moon.

I had heard of alternate history fiction before, like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South series, which was always in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle that I spent hours in at Borders as a teenager. But Brennan’s alternate history of “NASA’s finest hour” requires no time travel. In fact, I am not sure which category of the bookstore it should be placed. Zero Phase is a meticulously researched thought experiment based entirely in reality. The only difference between the real saga of Apollo 13 and Brennan’s story is a fateful difference in timing: what if the accident happened after reaching lunar orbit? Would they still have made it home alive?

Intriguing, right? Zero Phase, at only about 100 pages, is a fast and exciting entry into what for me was a hidden genre: alternative spaceflight history. My Kindle is now full of short story and novel titles with the same spirit: Recovering Apollo 8, Gemini 17, One False Step, STS-136, Launch On Need… most I have yet to read. Maybe most of them are poorly executed, which could explain the genre’s quiet existence? But the first two entries in the Altered Space series are an engrossing ride for any lover of space history. After finishing Zero Phase I also quickly devoured Brennan’s second story, Public Loneliness, which chronicles a solo circumlunar flight by Yuri Gagarin.

Both stories are written in the first person and don’t waste any time on exposition. Zero Phase opens with Jim Lovell and Fred Haise together in their Lunar Module (LM), already floating free of the Command Module (CM), moments from beginning their descent burn. Brennan has a knack for turning tedious technical details into a story. The prose is dense with a wealth of research into the sequence of events of a powered lunar descent and preparation for a surface EVA. But mixed in with the facts is an intriguing view into the character of an Apollo commander put into an unusual situation.

Brennan performed his research with Jim Lovell’s consent and help and it certainly would not be the thought-provoking read that it is without the fictional but believable voice of narration from Lovell. The story moves in a fast pace from descent, to EVA prep, through the accident, and then preparation for an emergency ascent from the lunar surface – each piece true to actual NASA procedure. But mixed in are periods of flashbacks or commentary from this fictional Lovell that do as good a job as Tom Hanks in the film Apollo 13 of creating a sympathetic character.

You may not get the answer you are looking for at the end of Zero Phase. The story ends as abruptly as it starts (no hints on whether it is a happy ending or not) and leaves you excited enough to read more that you will quickly go and download Public Loneliness, the slightly longer Gagarin story.

Public Loneliness is a different story from Zero Phase in many ways. For one thing, it is going to be a much less familiar setting for most readers, given that Zero Phase involves characters and events from one of the most beloved space movies of all time. The character of Gagarin himself is a bit jarring. Based on a legendary Soviet hero long dead, Brennan likely had a harder time researching for this story, including teasing the facts from fiction in the various biographies (and Gagarin’s autobiography). Brennan takes an interesting tact in his fictional tale and what seems as an honest narration from Gagarin is sprinkled with hints that he isn’t being completely honest, that you may be reading a propaganda piece with half-truths.

Gagarin’s story starts atop a Proton rocket ready to launch towards to moon, but spends as much time on flashbacks as the circumlunar flight itself. Having not read much on Gagarin previously myself, these parts were in some ways more interesting to me. The fictional mission that is the subject of the story is less interesting than in Zero Phase because it is somewhat more fanciful. The nature of his flight and the problems that arise are imagined by Brennan, while in Zero Phase, a known problem merely takes place later in the mission.

Public Loneliness is an exploration of what it must have been to be a hero in the USSR – so much in the public eye but with your true nature hidden from even those closest to you. Did he really buy into the propaganda or was he just doing his job? Despite these interesting digressions into unanswerable questions about personality, Brennan still manages to focus the story on a realistic adventure aboard a Soviet spacecraft that almost was. Like in Zero Phase, portions of the book focus on technical procedures – like doing a trajectory correction burn on the way home from the moon – that are true to Soviet design while also creating exciting tension for the reader.

Again, I highly recommend Zero Phase to all fans of spaceflight history, especially if the Apollo Program and Apollo 13 are exciting to you. Public Lonelines is not as quick a read, but is just as intriguing a “what if” story, not only because of the extensive research done in its writing, but because of the fictional voice of a long-dead hero jumping off the pages. If nothing else, Gerald Brennan’s first two entries in what will hopefully be a continuing series will get most space geeks addicted to this new genre of alternate history story. Happy reading!

You can buy Zero Phase in Kindle or paperback editions here. You can buy Public Loneliness in Kindle or paperback editions here.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week, on Wednesday, March 11th, Orbital ATK conducted a successful static test fire of one of the solid propellant rocket motors that will be used for the SLS rocket.

The next day, on the 12th, the Soyuz carrying Butch Wilmore, Elena Serova, and Alexander Samokutyaev returned to Earth. Check out these incredible pictures of their descent and landing. Looks like it was a beautiful (cold) day in Kazakhstan.

With Butch and crew on the ground, Expedition 43 is underway with only three crew members onboard – Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov. They are a good trio to have onboard together, as they are all very active on Twitter, providing us awesome views of Earth from on orbit! However, they will be joined very shortly by Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko who are launching next Friday, March 27th.

On March 18th, many space fans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ever spacewalk, conducted by Alexei Leonov on the Voskhod 2 mission.

Leonov is 80 years old, and did a press circuit for the occassion!

In less fun news, there has been a lot of talk about a couple of space-related hearings in Washington, D.C. that happened earlier this month. Let me break it down into the biggest talking points for you:

1. On March 4th, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the “House Appropriations Committee” for a budget hearing. Some folks latched on to a discussion between Bolden and Congressman John Culbertson about whether NASA has a plan for ISS if Russia decides to no longer participate. Given that the program is a joint venture that depends on both parties, it seems to me like an unfair premise.

2. On March 12th, Bolden appeared before the “Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness”. One of the big takeaways was Bolden’s comments about why the Opportunity’s rover’s budget is being cancelled in 2016. The Planetary Society has a pretty good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

3. In the same hearing, Bolden was asked by Texas Senator Ted Cruz why NASA spends so much time on Earth science instead of exploring space. Of course, Earth science is part of NASA’s core mission. Parabolic Arc explains why Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.

4. Lastly, the senate held an “Army and Air Force hearing” on March 18th. There was some discussion about the RD-180 engine issues (see my earlier post) and whether the Air Force could provide a replacement by the 2019 deadline. USAF and ULA officials say it is not possible. Some of the senators scolded that no progress has been made. However, Aerojet recently conducted a test of their new AR1 engine, which may be a starting point for a replacement.

In Orbit

I will optimistically put this news in the “in orbit” section: with bids on the CRS-2 (commercial resupply services) contract due, both Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada have been promoting their ideas for how to get cargo to and from the ISS. Lockheed Martin has a unique design involving a reusable cargo ferry that stays in orbit and transfers cargo to a rocket stage with a robotic arm. Sierra Nevada is proposing an unmanned variant of their Dreamchaser spaceplane, which recently lost out on the ISS crew transfer contract (CCtCAP).

Speaking of ISS cargo, NASA has extended the contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK by a few additional flights in 2017 to close the gap between CRS and CRS-2.

Alright, back to the fun stuff. Up in space, the pretty pictures from the ISS crew just keep on coming:

Today there is a total solar eclipse in the Northern Atlantic and Arctic. Hopefully the astronauts can get some views from the ISS! In fact, Cristoforetti just posted the below picture just a few minutes ago, as I write this.

Around the Solar System

Recent observations of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope confirms the presence of a sub-surface ocean. Wicked.

Meanwhile, Cassini has discovered evidence or hydrothermal activity below the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The MAVEN spacecraft has discovered ultraviolet aurora at Mars.

Out There

There is a new nova in the constellation Sagittarius bright enough to see with binoculars. It was too cloudy this morning in Houston to spot it but I will keep looking!

Weekly Links

Before I get into my recap of what has happened over the past week and a half, I want to make sure to note that tomorrow, Wednesday, March 11, there will be two big events covered on NASA TV. First, Orbital ATK will conduct a test firing of a solid rocket motor in support of SLS development. The coverage will start at 11 AM Eastern with the test firing at 11:30 AM. Secondly, Soyuz TMA-14M will undock from the ISS at 6:44 PM Eastern and land at around 10:07 PM in Kazakhstan. There is NASA TV coverage throughout the day, including at 3 PM for hatch closing. Here is the change of command ceremony from earlier today:

Down to Earth

Sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on Star Trek) died on February 27th.

Cast of Star Trek with NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise

One of Chris Hadfield’s old flight suits (not worn in space) was bought at a random Toronto thrift store. Seriously.

Although SpaceX’s lawsuit against the USAF seems to have been resolved, there has been another interesting piece of space legal work going on. SpaceX is suing over Blue Origin’s patent on landing a rocket stage on a platform at sea.

United Launch Alliance plans to retire the Delta IV launch vehicle (but not the Heavy variant).

China has made some of their future manned spaceflight plans public, including the launch of a new larger space station next year.

I don’t know what to call this other than a “trailer”. Check out this video about the LHC starting up again this year:

In Orbit

A USAF weather satellite known as DMSP-13 broke apart at a 500 mile altitude in early February.

On March 1st, SpaceX launched its third Falcon 9 launch of the year. Quite a good pace so far in 2015…

Also on March 1st, astronauts Terry Virts and Butch Wilmore completed the third of their trilogy of spacewalks outside the ISS to “wire up” the US segment for the new docking ports to be delivered starting later this year.

ISS Commander Butch has been posting some excellent Vine’s in his last few weeks aboard. Here is a sample (follow @space_station on Twitter or Vine):

Of course, Samantha Cristoforetti has been just as busy on social media. Here is a shot she got of some cubesats recently launched from the Japanese robotic arm on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The Dawn spacecraft has reached Ceres! However, as you can see in the animation below, the spacecraft is in a bit of an odd “orbit” above the dark side of the asteroid until early April. That is why we won’t get better sunlit images of the asteroid for several weeks.

Check out this awesome shot of Mars’ moon Phobos in silhoutte, by India’s MOM.

via The Meridiana Journal. Photo Credit: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

Check out this picture that the Rosetta spacecraft took of its own shadow.

Some scary news from Mars at the end of last month – a short circuit in the instruments at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm caused the missions’s flight control team to halt operations for troubleshooting. It sounds like as of this week, they have determined it is safe to continue operations. Excellent!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Hungary is the newest member of the European Space Agency (ESA). With the addition of Hungary and Estonia, ESA will need to revise their astronauts’ flag-covered shoulder patch (seen below on Andre Kuipers’ flight suit).

Since I mentioned ESA, it is always nice to share their Week in Images post.

The Intelsat 603 satellite, which was rescued to a higher orbit on the first 3-person EVA on STS-49 in 1992, has been disposed of in a “graveyard orbit”.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for best actor last weekend, is a NASA supporter.

It’s a rare week that goes by without some news related to SpaceX worth mentioning. A few things this week. First, SpaceX has a new contract with SES for the launch of two communications satellites which may be the first to launch from the new facility in the Southernmost part of Texas. Secondly, SpaceX has started construction of their hangar near launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. 39A is one of the two historic launchpads built for the Apollo program and also used during the Space Shuttle program. Lastly, SpaceX will be launching their next Falcon 9 rocket in a few days. The current date is listed by Spaceflight Now with an uncertain “March 1/2″. This launch is of commercial payloads and will liftoff from Florida.

In Orbit

No notable rocket launches this week, except for a Russian military satellite on a Soyuz rocket, which launched this morning. Instead, there was another spacewalk up on the ISS. Terry Virts and ISS Commander Butch Wilmore have one more spacewalk this coming weekend to finish out their tasks laying cable for future commercial crew dockings.

Speaking of the ISS, the Russian Federal Space Agency (I’m not sure what to call it, as they are in the middle of a re-organization) announced this week that they now intend to continue ISS operations through 2024. Previously, Russia had only committed through 2020, so this is good news.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched by NASA on a Delta II rocket earlier this year, deployed its impressive sensing array this week and is getting ready to start its science campaign. Here’s an animation of what it would have looked like.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover took an impressive self-portrait (or “selfie”, if you must) of its current location on the foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars. Curiosity is currently at a site called Pahrump Hills where it has been drilling various rocks.

Courtesy NASA (click image for annotated version)

Meanwhile, out in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a week away from entering orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid. The pictures coming down are already remarkable and include a strange pair of bright spots in a crater.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some good stuff from NASA’s astronaut office this week. First, the members of ISS Expeditions 48, 49, and 50 were announced. The crews have some veterans such as Jeffrey Williams and Peggy Whitson but also some rookies such as Katie Rubins and Takuya Onishi. Then, the Expedition 45 crew gave us this awesome mission promo poster.

Arianespace scooped some recent commercial launch contracts that SpaceX probably would have liked to win. Interestingly, the two companies each won 7 new contracts last year.

Items from a long-forgotten bag of odds and ends from the Apollo 11 mission are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The bag was found in Neil Armstrong’s closet by his widow. You can’t make this stuff up!

In Orbit

It has been a busy week in space! On Tuesday, SpaceX brought home a Dragon capsule from the ISS and then a day later launched another Falcon 9 rocket, this time with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft. The launch was at just about sunset making for some great pictures, which are all over the internet: Spaceflight Now has some good ones, or you can just browse Twitter.

Also on Wednesday, ESA launched a Vega rocket on a suborbital test mission of a small reusable spaceplane-like spacecraft (technically a “lifting body”). Watch how fast this rocket jumps off the pad!

The excitement extended into the weekend, with the departure of ESA’s last ATV cargo vehicle from ISS this morning. Here is the final status report from the ATV mission manager from prior to undocking. Unfortunately, the undocking was during orbital night so it is hard to find any good pictures. Here you can see ATV’s navigation lights shining in the darkness.

Next week a new Progress cargo vehicle will launch from Kazakhstan taking ATV’s place at the aft port of ISS. Then late in the week, Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts will step outside on the first of three upcoming spacewalks.

With such a busy and memorable week for ESA, it would be remiss of me not to share their Week in Images post!

And of course Terry and Samantha continue to take amazing photos of the Earth and post them quickly on Twitter for us to enjoy! Here is your weekly selection:

Around the Solar System

As always, the rover Opportunity is slowly trudging along on Mars. She is approaching “Marathon Valley,” the point where her odometer will reach 26.2 miles. At over 11 years, her time won’t break any records; but she sure is determined.

Because it’s Cool

Two new episodes of Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy are up!

2014 in review – Part II

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the year 2014 in spaceflight. Here is a link to Part I.

If you read my blog it’s because you are a lover of space, or you are my mom (hi mom!). So I assume you are not offended by the limited focus of this small slice of the internet. There are of course other things going on in the world besides rockets launching and people flying in space. And even I admit that in many cases those things are more important. For instance, the January 7th terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded the world’s attention, and rightly so. Such a tragic and visible event is an important moment in the history of our culture – the way we choose to respond says something about how we value our free speech (or not).

The year of 2014 had its share of world events that command more attention than what I write about in this blog. From the threat of ISIS in the middle east, the winter olympics in Sochi, Russia, Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the normalization of US-Cuba relations, it was a busy year (it’s nice to see the Rosetta comet mission on some lists of major world events).

In the same way that my space blog almost completely ignores these events to stay on point, I think the space community at large tends to insulate itself from the outside world. As you might imagine, this can have its downsides. The world is connected, and as much as we want, the fun things we do in space are affected by the rest of the world. Fans of NASA know this as they watch the yo-yo-ing of NASA’s slice of the federal budget over the years. I think 2014 drove this lesson home in a way fans of spaceflight hadn’t been expecting. When Russia invaded Crimea in late February, most space fans weren’t thinking of a connection. We were busy talking about Orbital Sciences’ successful cargo mission to ISS or looking at pictures of SpaceX’s new rocket with legs. It took until April for “reality” to catch up with us.

Part II – Of trampolines and rockets

In early April, the US state department instructed NASA to cut all contact with Russia. This would of course be very concerning – and hard for the space community to tune out – except for that the ISS program was exempted. The ISS of course being the one major ongoing collaboration between our two space programs. The only other example I can think of is that NASA and Roscosmos are both involved in the ESA-led ExoMars mission.

Things really got interesting when Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Most Americans wouldn’t have even heard about it – after all, it was tweeted in Cyrillic – except it was too pithy a jab to go unnoticed by American media. In light of the geopolitcal tensions between our nations that had been brewing since February, it was a juicy new angle – Russia might not let American astronauts fly on their Soyuz. It didn’t matter that most Americans hadn’t heard of Rogozin before, if he was saying that he would cut America off from the ISS, it must mean he could. He said it on Twitter, after all.

It seemed that although the US had exempted the ISS program, Russian officials weren’t taking it off the table as a political chess piece. Rogozin’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was individually targeted in the recent sanctions from the US against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. As ABC News reported,

The sanctions freeze any assets under American jurisdiction and prevent American banks from doing business with the named individual, essentially freezing them out of the international banking system. The sanctions also impose a ban on their travel to the United States.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin is responsible for the entire Russian space program, including the state-owned corporation NPO Energomash, which produces the RD-180 rocket engine used by the American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch US Department of Defense satellites with the Atlas V rocket… see where this is going?

However, nowhere in the sanctions against Rogozin are the companies and agency’s he manages directly called out. Business was going on as usual in the space industry up to this point (the NASA ban on Russian cooperation doesn’t apply to a private company, ULA, buying rocket engines). So, the question still stands, what set off Rogozin to author the trampoline tweet?

Enter Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, whose lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government (specifically, the U.S. Air Force) challenging a 36-rocket “block buy” contract with ULA. The main premise of the suit was that the contract was unfair and lacked competition (meaning of course, that SpaceX did not have a chance to offer a bid). Among other statements at the press conference announcing the suit, Musk is quoted as saying (from SpacePolitics.com):

How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.

It seems that Elon Musk stoked the fire here, complaining that ULA’s use of the RD-180, a powerful engine built and sold by NPO Energomash, should not be allowed during this time of geopolitical tension with Russia. Hard to argue with his logic, isn’t it? A few days after the lawsuit was filed and Elon Musk’s press conference, Rogozin posted his famous tweet. The next day, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction saying that ULA could not purchase more RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash for Department of Defense rocket launches, citing the sanctions against Rogozin. Your move Dmitri.

How is it that Elon Musk, with his 12-year-old rocket company, had amassed enough influence to directly affect international relations between two of the biggest world powers? Granted, Musk is a billionaire, but his company is just a rocket company, not a media conglomerate or oil company, the traditional ways to have political influence as a rich guy. Founded in 2002, you wouldn’t think that SpaceX has a huge share of the world launch market. They have only 19 launches under their belt (a few of which were failures); compare that to the 14 successful launches from ULA just in 2014[1]. A big part of SpaceX’s quick rise surely comes from the intriguing personality of Elon Musk, whose vision and ideas capture the imagination of the young generation. His tenacity and commitment to his dreams make it hard to root against him – his three current big ventures (SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City), if successful, seem to have a clear benefit for society. But this really only explains the cult of SpaceX, not its influence on a political level. To understand why SpaceX is in such a position of influence takes a revelation about the “launch services sector” (or, the rocket business), that I don’t think most people understand; I don’t think I got it until last year either.

Not to get too technical, but the revelation becomes clear with just a little bit of Wikipedia research. Forgive me for making you look at a data table, but I think it tells the story better than a bunch of links. Let’s say you work for Iridium, the satellite phone service company, and you need to buy a rocket to launch a new satellite. If your satellite weighs around 689 kg, then there are only 21 types of rockets in the world that have the power, and a lot of them aren’t for sale. Here’s the list:

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 10.24.22 PM

Source: Wikipedia article “comparison of orbital launch systems”

The first thing that should jump out at you is that there are only three companies from the United States that can launch medium-sized satellites. Fortunately for the folks at Iridium, their satellites are not military, and the company has utilized American, Russian, and even Chinese rockets to build their global sat-phone network.

In another scenario, you work at the Pentagon and need to find a large rocket to launch a secret spy satellite that weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 kg. Not only do your options get more limited (the Indian GSLV and Orbital Minotaur fall off the list, among others) but you are going to have to use an American company. You won’t be allowed to ship a secret satellite out of the country for launch, obviously.

So now your options are down to the three American companies, all of which have rockets that can launch your big spy satellite. However, if our scenario occurs before 2008, before the first Falcon 9 or Antares flight, there was only one choice – ULA. This is the revelation that 2014 made clear to me. We are 50 years into the “space age” but our grasp on space is hanging on by one company’s monopoly and just a few rocket designs. Until the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, every major government launch – NASA, Air Force, NOAA, or other military – was on either a ULA rocket (or predecessors), or a Space Shuttle. If space is the frontier, then ULA is Union Pacific at Promontory Point.

So, three choices is pretty good, right? It’s better than we get in our presidential elections here in the US. Well, the problem is that although 2008 is 7 iPhone versions ago, it is very recent in terms of the space industry. As of April 2014, Orbital Sciences was not pursuing military payloads and SpaceX had not yet received certification from the USAF for their Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket. ULA was the only game in town for the Pentagon, but SpaceX expected that to change soon, as they had successfully launched the CRS-3 mission to the ISS on April 18th, the all-important third flight needed as part of the certification process. The Russian sanctions and push back from Rogozin could not have been happening at a better time for SpaceX, who appeared to be on the verge of becoming a real direct competitor to ULA. SpaceX is an American company, using American-built rocket engines, seen to be on the verge of being able to fully replace America’s areas of dependence on Russia in space. Keep in mind that the Atlas V was also in the pipe to be the launch vehicle for both Boeing and Sierra Nevada if they were to be awarded commercial crew contracts to the ISS. It seemed everything about the US launch sector was wrapped up in this issue. You can bet Musk was going to take advantage of it.

The story didn’t end on April 30th with the injunction against he RD-180 engine. That should be obvious from the way Rogozin responded to Elon Musk’s comments days before. Unfortunately for SpaceX’s political goals, the injunction against the RD-180 engines was lifted by the court about a week later. Just as things were seeming to thaw out, Rogozin hit Twitter again.

Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the us only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Roscosmos doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss Rogozin’s comments as just posturing on Twitter. However, they came after the topics were discussed at more length at a Russian press conference, and led directly to debate in the U.S. Senate and a letter from Congressmen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden questioning how he plans to deal with these threats. It just goes to show that what’s most important is who says something, not how. And although a National Reconnaissance Office payload launched on an Atlas V on May 19 with no apparent political repercussions, Rogozin’s inflammatory remarks had done their job. An “RD-180 Study Group” was busy investigating the impacts of a potential loss of the RD-180 engine, which recommended allocating funds to develop a new engine. This would turn into a funding debate for the rest of 2015. Ultimately, the 2015 budget passed in December included $220 million to start designing an RD-180 replacement.

In the meantime, over at NASA, things never got much more heated than they were back in April and May. In fact, in August there were reports out of Russia from Roscosmos officials that ISS would likely be operated past 2020. But the “trampoline tweet” was ingrained in the community’s mind. Fortunately, optimism was available later in the year when NASA announced that the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts would go to Boeing for the CST-100 and SpaceX for the Dragon V2. It’s no surprise that SpaceX was included as one of the remaining two options – if NASA had gone with both Boeing and Sierra Nevada then NASA astronauts would be flying atop Atlas V’s starting in 2017, powered by RD-180 engines. Sierra Nevada immediately protested the award, but the protest was recently thrown out in January 2015.

Optimism turned to shock when on October 28th an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, carrying cargo to the ISS, exploded spectacularly just seconds after liftoff.

First moments of Antares explosion (via Spaceflight Now, image courtesy NASA)

If you remember from our earlier chart, the Antares is the other large US rocket powered by foreign technology. The first stage engine for the Antares is the AJ-26, which is really just the Ukranian NK-33 imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne and refurbished. These imported engines were literally built decades ago, but are an affordable and well-built option. The seemingly excessive use of Russian or Ukranian engines in the US launch sector isn’t for nothing – the Soviets were darn good at building rocket engines, and that expertise has continued to today.

Earlier in the year an AJ-26 blew up on a test stand, but a successful launch of a mission to ISS in July eased everyone’s concerns. Things seemed to be going well for “commercial space” – SpaceX had recently launched their sixth and final Falcon 9 flight of the year – but everyone immediately thought of that old Soviet NK-33 engine the moment they saw the Antares rocket raining down in flames.

The loss of that Antares rocket unfortunately will be the lasting memory of 2014, a year of uncertainty and debate for rocket companies in the US. While Orbital Sciences has announced a path forward, it doesn’t help answer many of the questions raised by events of the past year. Orbital announced in December that it would fly at least its next ISS resupply mission on an Atlas V (yes, that Atlas V) while it works on a plan to replace the aging AJ-26 engines on its own Antares rocket. And finally, in January 2015, Orbital announced it had made a deal with NPO Energomash (yes, that NPO Energomash) to purchase RD-181 engines to power future versions of the Antares, hopefully with a first flight sometime in 2016.

So you can see the tricky spot the industry is left in at the beginning of 2015. Despite Russia not being a political ally of the United States, Russian rocket engines continue to be an important workhorse for American launches – both military and civil – and operations of the ISS cannot continue without Russian cooperation (by design). The good news is that the issues from 2014 are mostly reasons just to be cautious and concerned about the future, and to lay plans accordingly. No scary outcome, like an actual embargo against NASA astronauts flying on a Soyuz, seems at all likely. ISS operations continue as always, and those of us working on the program have not seen any real signs that that won’t continue for the life of the space station. Atlas V rocket launches – powered by Russian RD-180 engines – continue apace with no signs of stopping. In fact, an Atlas V will launch from Florida tomorrow night with the MUOS-3 reconnaissance payload.

In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to achieve Air Force certification, and hopefully the ongoing lawsuit that SpaceX started in April of last year will be resolved. Will SpaceX win and break the monopoly held by ULA? Also, the next phase of the ISS commercial cargo contract will be awarded by NASA. Will the award go to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to maintain the status quo? Or will Orbital’s launch vehicle uncertainty open the door for a new player like Sierra Nevada? Either way that contract goes, the only fully domestic option available to NASA seems to be SpaceX. All of these questions involve SpaceX in one way or another and the answers will color the future of the rocket launching business in America.

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[1] – ULA has actually only existed since 2006, but the parent companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Air Force. The current suite of ULA rockets are part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program (EELV) which was started in the mid 1990’s.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.

In Orbit

Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.

Out There

2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Because it’s cool

Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:

2014 in review – Part I

You can read last year’s 2013 in review posts for context here: Part I and Part II.

Part I – NASA

When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.

NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.

The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.

The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.

In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.

“Path to Mars” from April 2014 by NASA

“Journey to Mars” from December 2014 by NASA

With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.

Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.

The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.

The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.

I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”

What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.

So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.

In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.