Archive for the ‘space policy’ category

Outpost Tavern and the End of an Era

October 17, 2010

The Outpost Tavern burned down Friday night. The Outpost was a rickety little tavern in Houston a couple miles from Johnson Space Center, famous as a hang-out for astronauts and other NASA folks. It went out of business earlier this year and it has apparently now met its fiery demise.

I first visited the Outpost when I was in the 2006 Goddard NASA Academy. 20 of us showed up without notice at this little bar with one bartender and a couple of regulars. They were completely overwhelmed by the sudden burst of business, but amazingly, the regulars got up and lent the bartender a hand in the kitchen, and we all got our burgers and beer in impressively little time. We followed the tradition and signed our names to a dollar bill and posted it on the wall along with all the other signed bills and various astronaut paraphernalia.

Future NASA heroes enjoying dinner at The Outpost.

But I mention the end of the Outpost not just so I can share that anecdote with you. I mentioned it because I came across an interesting commentary on the Outpost as a metaphor for NASA in general over at Elliott Potter’s blog Implementation, Detail.

This excerpt really stood out to me:

Now it’s 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle’s proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it’s hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology – it’s because small-minded people won’t let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday’s paper heroes – Shuttle astronauts who can’t bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren’t viewed as heroes.

I agree with most of this, but I think more than just the Old Guard lament the loss of the Outpost and the era that it stood for. I certainly am sad to see it go even though I share Potter’s disappointment with the tendency for NASA to cling to the past. The early days of NASA have become almost mythological precisely because there were heroes, and it’s very difficult for people to imagine a different type of NASA with different types of heroes. But that’s exactly what we need. The tendency has always been to try to recreate those glory days of NASA, but we live in a different world and we have to accept there are other ways for space exploration to advance.

I sincerely hope that as NASA attempts to move forward and send humans to Near Earth Objects and other destinations beyond low-earth orbit, it also remembers how to get the world excited again. I’ve talked about this before and Potter puts his finger on it: NASA needs heroes again, and people need to be comfortable with scientists and engineers being those heroes rather than Buck Rodgers-style steely-eyed missile men. You can show the average person all the spectacular pictures of space that you like, but they won’t truly get excited about what NASA does unless there is a human element to connect with. Human space exploration is perfect for building this connection with the public, but somehow NASA has lost the ability or the willingness to play on the inherent human drama of what it does.

I’ll close with the eloquent conclusion to Elliott Potter’s post because it sums things up better than I can:

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn’t require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it – that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability – the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.

Why NASA Can’t Get Stuff Done Anymore

August 2, 2010

A friend of mine from NASA Academy shared this excellent article about the ongoing NASA budget mess in congress. I haven’t been following it as closely as I used to because it’s just depressing to watch. Here are some key excerpts from the article, but you should go take a look at the rest of the article for some more details about the senate and house versions of the NASA budget.

Simply put, NASA has not successfully developed a new launch system in three decades. The last one was the Space Shuttle, and it was successful only by the minimal criteria that it eventually flew.

It has not been for lack of trying.

… the White House and the space agency didn’t adequately coordinate with Congress before it rolled out its new plan, and it ran into a buzz saw on the Hill, because for most of those overseeing the NASA budget there, the primary purpose of the agency is not to accomplish useful things in space, but to ensure continued jobs in the states and congressional districts of its overseers. (emphasis added)

The problem with both congressional versions of the new authorization is that they completely ignore last fall’s warnings of the Augustine panel, to which the White House responded by revealing the new plan in February.. Developing (let alone operating) a NASA-dedicated launcher and crew module was unaffordable under the old plan. Nothing has happened to reduce the projected costs of either Ares or Orion, yet Congress has demanded that they continue while providing them with even less funding than they were projected to get under the old plan reviewed by the Augustine panel.

NASA is being asked to do too much with too little by Congress, and, once again, America’s space agency is set up for failure. If this plan goes forward, it will preserve jobs in Utah, Alabama, Texas and Florida, but contribute little to actually accomplishing things in space. And we can expect to have to assemble another panel of experts a couple of years from now to tell us once again what we already know, and what Congress will continue to ignore, because pork will always reign over progress.

Ares 1-X vs Falcon 9: A Comparison

June 12, 2010

Well, I’ve been a bad space blogger, and didn’t write anything about the spectacular successful launch of  SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 4th. Considering the ongoing wailing and gnashing of teeth over the cancellation of Constellation in favor of using commercial rockets to send astronauts to the ISS, I thought it would be worth taking a look at how Falcon 9 compares with the Ares 1-X, which launched back in October. Both rockets were launched as test flights, and the final design of both was meant to send astronauts and small amounts of cargo to and from the space station.

Ares 1-X was a suborbital test flight, using the same solid rocket booster that the finished Ares 1 would have used, but with the fifth segment of the booster, the second stage, the crew module and the escape tower as mass simulators rather than the actual components which were not ready at the time of launch. Ares 1-X also borrowed its avionics package from a commercial Atlas V rocket. Falcon 9 was an orbital flight, using a completed launch vehicle but a Dragon mass simulator “qualification unit” (see comment below).

The Ares 1-X rocket reached an altitude of 46 kilometers and traveled about 240 km downrange. When the upper stage simulator separated from the booster, it began to tumble. The real Ares 1 would have had boosters on the upper stage that might have been able to correct for the spin. One of the three parachutes on the Ares1-X booster failed, causing the booster to crash into the ocean harder than expected.

Falcon 9 launched successfully and reached its expected 250 km low Earth orbit. The spacecraft rolled more than expected late in the flight, and the theoretically reusable first stage broke up in the atmosphere, due to parachute failure.

The final Ares 1 would have been able to launch a payload of 25,400 kg into low Earth orbit. The constellation program called for the development of a heavy-lift vehicle, the Ares V, but no prototypes of that rocket have been built or tested. With the impending cancellation of Constellation, there are no more Ares test flights scheduled.

Falcon 9 can launch 10,450 kg into low Earth orbit, and a Falcon 9 “Heavy” variant, which would use two additional first stages as side-mounted boosters, would be able to lift 32,000 kg to LEO. The heavy variant has not been tested. A second Falcon 9 test flight, with a fully operational Dragon capsule is slated for later this summer.

The Ares 1-X project cost a total of ~$445 million, and the Augustine commission found that it would likely cost $5 to $6 billion to develop the final Ares 1 rocket. They predicted a recurring cost of about $1 billion per flight of the Ares 1/Orion launcher and spacecraft.

I can’t find a number for the project cost of the Falcon 9 development and launch, but a SpaceX press release (which I admit is not the most neutral source…) said:

For less than the cost of the Ares I mobile service tower, SpaceX has developed all the flight hardware for the Falcon 9 orbital rocket, Dragon spacecraft, as well as three launch sites.

Per-launch cost for the Falcon 9 is predicted to be around $50 million for the normal booster and $78 million for the Falcon 9 Heavy.

So what does the successful Falcon 9 launch mean for the future of spaceflight? It’s too early to really tell, but SpaceX had a major victory with its successful launch. Falcon 9 is a fully operational vehicle that had a nearly flawless test flight. Later this summer, we will hopefully see a second successful launch, including an operational Dragon capsule. And I don’t know about you, but my jaw just about hit the floor when I saw the cost of Ares 1 alongside the cost for Falcon 9.

To put it in perspective, if the Augustine commission estimate of $1 billion per Ares 1 flight is correct, and if the SpaceX estimates for the Falcon 9 launch costs are correct, you could launch about twenty Falcon 9’s or twelve Falcon 9 heavies for the same price as one Ares 1 launch. Converting that to payload to orbit, $1 billion could get you 209,000 kg to LEO using Falcon 9’s, 410,000 kg using Falcon 9 heavies, or 25,400 kg on the Ares 1.

There have been some negative comments saying that SpaceX just proved that it can do what NASA did fifty years ago, namely launch cargo into LEO. But those comments ignore the fact that once the shuttle is retired, NASA can’t do that anymore, and wouldn’t be able to for many years and many billions of dollars. The way things are going, it looks likely that SpaceX or another commercial provider will be able to fill the gap in access to the ISS much quicker and for much less money than if NASA were to do it.

In any case, I will leave you with videos of both the Ares 1-X and the Falcon 9 launches. Both spectacular and beautiful:

The Case for Mars: Autotuned

June 3, 2010

For me, none of the newer symphony of science videos can match the sheer catchy-ness of the original, but this one is about exploring Mars, so I can’t complain too much. Check the Symphony of Science page for other autotuned science-themed music videos.

Thoughts on Obama’s Space Speech

April 15, 2010

In case you missed it, you can click here to watch Obama’s speech at NASA today and read the transcript here.

Overall there were not a lot of surprises in this speech. NASA still gets a budget increase. The shuttle is still on-track for cancellation, the Constellation program is also going to be canceled, with transportation to and from the ISS to be provided by private companies. The ISS will be extended so that it can actually be used now that it is built, and to make our international partners happy. NASA will begin designing a heavy launch vehicle for trips beyond low Earth orbit, and returning to the Moon is no longer a high priority.

There were some new details and some changes however. First, Obama mentioned some more specific deadlines and destinations:

  • NASA will begin constructing a heavy launch vehicle by 2015
  • Crewed test flights beyond low-earth-orbit by early 2020s
  • Human mission to a near-earth asteroid by 2025
  • Mars missions in the 2030s

This timeline is aggressive but plausible, and looks pretty darn good, considering that the Augustine commission found that even with a $3 billion per year increase in funding, Constellation wouldn’t get us to the moon until the mid 2020s. This fits in very well with the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine commission, and the Roadmap for Space Exploration proposed by the Planetary Society. I think a lot of people underestimate the value of having a series of goals, building off one another, rather than a distant goal and few milestones along the way.

Obama also talked about the new plan to keep the Orion capsule to use as a “lifeboat” from the ISS. I’m somewhat skeptical about this, although obviously NASA will need to continue to develop some sort of capsule to return astronauts to the surface from other missions. I’d like to see more details on what changes will be made to Orion, and how this new “lifeboat” capsule will lead to a capsule to be used by exploration missions. Frankly, this sounds to me like a political decision.

I was disappointed that Obama chose to echo the “been there done that” attitude toward the Moon. I think the Moon still could play an important role in exploration. Although they are very different worlds, it makes some sense to send missions to the moon to prepare for missions to Mars, for example. But I also think the choice to change from a single-minded focus on returning to the moon is the right one. The moon is just one of many possible destinations. The important thing is that with a launch vehicle capable of sending astronauts to asteroids and Mars, it would certainly be possible to go to the moon as well.

So, as I said, not a terribly surprising speech. It’s nice to see some concrete goals, but I’m skeptical of this Orion lifeboat plan. Based on the responses I read on Twitter, there are some space advocates who like the new plan, and others who think it’s the end of space exploration, that their hopes and dreams are crushed, etc. I don’t understand some of the opposition to the new plan, which would give us more capability, sooner, for less money than the original plan. I also don’t understand those complaining about the end of the shuttle. That decision was made six years ago: the time to be angry about that is long gone.

For more detailed opinions on today’s speech, I recommend checking out Phil Plait’s post over at Bad Astronomy, and Joe Shoer’s post over at Quantum Rocketry.

How and when to view today’s Space Conference

April 15, 2010

Today’s space conference, including Obama’s speech, will be shown on NASA TV. Here’s the information (copied and pasted from this site):

NASA will hold a conference following President Obama’s remarks about the bold new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of U.S. leadership in human spaceflight on Thursday, April 15, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A diverse group of senior officials, space leaders, academic experts, industry leaders and others who have specific expertise or interests related to the topics of discussion will attend the conference and participate in four concurrent sessions on different aspects of the President’s new direction for NASA.

Additional Information: › President Obama’s Visit | › Space Conference

Where and When to Watch:

  • Live Streaming High Definition Video of President Barack Obama’s visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will be available on this page, beginning at approximately 1:30 p.m. EDT. The President is scheduled to speak at 2:40 p.m. EDT. It will also be available in standard definition on the regular NASA TV page.
  • The opening session of the NASA Space Conference, starting at approximately 3:45 p.m. EDT, will be streamed in standard definition on this page and on the regular NASA TV page.
  • Four concurrent breakout sessions, beginning at approximately 4:25 p.m. EDT, will be streamed in standard definition on this page.
  • The closing session of the NASA Space Conference, starting at approximately 5:40 p.m. EDT, will be streamed in standard definition on this page and on the regular NASA TV page.

Obama to speak at NASA tomorrow

April 14, 2010

Well, it looks like president Obama will be making a short visit to Kennedy Space Center tomorrow, where he will give a speech clarifying the space agency’s future. There has been a lot of speculation about what exactly he will say. Will he just promote his original plan, or has all the wailing and gnashing of teeth had some effect? I don’t know, but there are rumors flying around that there may be a compromise in the works.

This article suggests that Obama might bring back to Orion capsule, to be used as a lifeboat for the space station. This sounds to me like a primarily political decision, designed to keep some space-related jobs and to give the illusion that we are not entirely dependent upon Russian transportation to and from the space station.

I’m going to refrain from saying more until after I’ve heard what Obama has to say tomorrow, and the inevitable chorus of opinions from around the web. It will certainly be interesting…

Update: This PDF from the Office of Science and Technology Policy has some more concrete information. (Thanks to Joe Shoer for the link!)

Book Review: The Next 100 Years

March 18, 2010

You would think that since I’m working at Johnson Space Center right now, I would have exciting tales from inside NASA to share with you, but I’m afraid it has been pretty uneventful. I have however managed to read a couple of books, one of which was The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, by George Friedman.

This was a really fascinating book about using history and geopolitical patterns to predict the near, and somewhat more distant future. It was refreshing to hear someone discuss world events on a longer timescale than the 24-hour news cycle which dominates most of our knowledge of the world. An apt analogy comes to mind: this book is to daily world news what climate is to weather.

Friedman does a good job of laying the groundwork for the book by demonstrating what the major geopolitical forces of the 20th century were and how they led to events in our recent history. He then forges ahead with a similar analysis, predicting the future in decade-long chunks. Some of the predictions were pretty surprising to me, but Friedman makes a pretty good case, particularly for the nearer future ones. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but since these are printed on the book jacket I don’t think I’m giving too much away:

  • 2020: China fragments.
  • 2050: Global war between the US, Turkey, Poland and Japan – the new great powers.
  • 2080: Space-based energy powers the Earth.
  • 2100: Mexico challenges the US.

Provocative eh? Rather than pick at each of these, most of which I have no expertise with which to base my comments, I’d like to focus on Friedman’s discussion of space. If you don’t want some later parts of the book “spoiled” then stop reading here.

In the description of the global war that he predicts circa 2050, Friedman departs from the pattern set earlier in the book and gets into the details of one possible scenario. He gives many caveats making it clear that it’s impossible to predict events so accurately, but then he goes ahead and tries.

One of the major factors in the war, Friedman says, is going to be space-based surveillance and weapons. He foresees larger and more complex spy satellites developed by the US. Of course, our rivals will want to be able to disable these assets, so Friedman describes a strange sort of arms race in satellites that culminates in huge, crewed space stations that act as the hub for the US command and control network. Sort of like orbiting combinations of air traffic control towers and spy satellites. He cites the vulnerability of a ground-based control center, and the seconds of delay time between the acquisition of an image in space and its receipt at a ground-based control center on the surface of the other side of the earth. These “battle stars” would be armed and armored so that they are nearly impervious to attack by enemies. He also describes a fleet of smaller satellites controlled by the battlestars which can “stop and loiter for extended periods of time” over targets of interest.

If that sounds like science fiction, just wait until you hear about his description of how the Japanese will eventually take the Battle Stars out in a 21st century Pearl Harbor style attack. Friedman describes a covert Japanese base on the far side of the moon, which uses rocket-propelled moon rocks, sent into unusual orbits so that they look like ordinary asteroids. Then, when they are within striking distance of the Battle Stars, their rockets fire at the last minute, destroy the Battle Stars and blind the US for the start of the war.

Ok. Let’s think about this. I find it extremely unlikely that the benefits of having command and control located in space will outweigh the significant cost of constructing the “battle stars”. For the same price, the US could build a whole network of smaller satellites and numerous redundant receiving stations and control centers on the surface. And  as for satellites that can stop in their orbit over a target of interest: don’t hold your breath. Barring some revolutionary discovery in physics and propulsion, I can’t see how a spacecraft would accomplish that sort of task.  Satellites orbit fast, and that means it would take a lot of force to stop one in its orbit, and to get it back up to speed afterward.

The whole “moon rock weapons” idea might work, I guess, but if you take away the idea of hugely centralized assets in orbit, then that sort of strike doesn’t make much sense.

This space-based solar power concept uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight on photovoltaic cells, which convert the light to electricity, which powers a microwave transmitter. The microwaves a received on the surface and converted back to electricity.

Ok, but what about this space-based solar power idea? I think that is actually significantly more likely. Friedman is correct when he says that research is already being done into using huge orbiting solar arrays that would beam power down to earth in the form of microwaves. And I think he’s probably right that the military will pioneer large scale use of the technology. The ability to provide power to forces on the ground no matter where they are would be a huge asset to the military. Don’t believe me? Check out this 2007 report from the National Security Space Office.

It’s possible that space-based solar power will become feasible on its own merits, but having the military pioneer it would be an effective way to deal with the up-front costs of the first large-scale versions. I think if space solar power ever does become a major source of our energy, it will have a huge influence on the world. It would be a nearly limitless source of energy, and as Friedman mentions, it would change the balance of power in energy economics. Countries that have historically relied on profits from oil would no longer be able to do so if the biggest consumers in the world could launch their own power satellites and harvest their own energy.

Despite some weirdness in the predictions of space-based military assets, most of The Next 100 Years is a really interesting read. It is also a very easy and quick read. In fact, my last criticism is that Friedman tries a little too hard to explain things. Many themes and statements are repeated throughout the book, and there were even times when I was reading a paragraph and stopped to be sure I had read it correctly because it was repeating something that was mentioned earlier on the page.

As a side effect of reading about the future, I feel like I have a much better understanding of current geopolitics. It will be interesting in the coming years and decades to see how the predictions in the book stand up to the test of time, but if nothing else it’s a fascinating look at one possible version of the future.

NASA Administrator Addresses Budget Misconceptions

March 18, 2010

The Planetary Society blog posted this excerpt of some remarks made by Charlie Bolden on the 16th regarding NASA’s new plan. I was going to just select some key points, but really, it’s all pretty key, so I’m just going to copy shamelessly with some added emphasis:

“So let me just tell you a little more about this budget. Bear with me if you’re already knowledgeable here.

At the highest level, the President and his staff as well as my NASA senior leadership team closely reviewed the Augustine Committee report, and they came to the same realization the Committee concluded: The Constellation program was on an unsustainable trajectory. If we continued on our current course, at best we would have ended up flying a handful of astronauts to the moon sometime after 2030. But to accomplish even that limited task, we would have had to make even deeper cuts to the other parts of NASA’s budget, terminating support of the ISS early and decimating our science and aeronautics efforts. Further, we would have had no money to advance the state of the art in any of the technology areas that we need to enable us to do new things in space – no money to lower the cost of access to space, no money for closed- loop life support, no money for advanced propulsion technology, no money for radiation protection. The President recognized that what was truly needed for beyond LEO exploration was game-changing technologies; making the fundamental investments that will provide the foundation for the next half-century of American leadership in space exploration. In doing so, the President put forward what I believe to be the most authentically visionary policy for real human space exploration that we have ever had.

Some have argued that the Constellation program was the symbol of American leadership in space. I think they have been misled. An unsustainable program, as described in the Augustine Committee Report, with no funding planned to support the ISS beyond 2015 and no definitive, funded plans for a heavy lift launch vehicle necessary for exploration beyond low Earth orbit can hardly be considered a symbol of American leadership in space. U.S permanent human presence in space and our international human spaceflight partnership would have ended or been totally dependent on the Russians for the foreseeable future. That is not American leadership in my book. Under the new plan, however, we will ensure continuous American presence in space throughout this entire decade, re-establish a robust and competitive American launch industry, start a major heavy lift R&D program years earlier, and build a real technological foundation for sustainable beyond-LEO exploration. That to me is real leadership, and our international partners already recognize it.

The idea that a renewed focus on research and technology development is somehow foreign to NASA is just plain wrong. When NASA was first established, the Space Act mandated research as one of the agency’s central missions. Even the original Vision for Space Exploration intended to use the moon to test advanced technologies for exploring more distant destinations. But the development of Ares and Orion consumed these technology development plans. By 2009, there was little exploration funding available for anything besides the immediate launch vehicle and capsule programs. The president sought to correct that, and it required a bold course adjustment.

I often hear the criticism that under the President’s plan we have no destination. This is also not true. The ultimate destination in our solar system for our exploration efforts is Mars, but we don’t have the technological where-with-all to safely get humans there yet. In order to reach this destination, we need a robust research and development program to help us provide the capabilities that will make this goal attainable. When NASA’s transformative technology development and demonstration programs are underway, the commercial sector will be moving rapidly to develop crew and cargo capabilities for U.S. based transportation to LEO. Commercial providers have long carried our most valuable payloads to space for the nation and have been integral to every human spaceflight mission since the beginning. My guess is that the American workers who have successfully built and launched the Atlas V 20 times in a row would disagree that US commercial spaceflight is untried or untested.

The five companies to whom we awarded Recovery Act funds last month represent the expansion of the development of commercial crew capabilities. These are some of the large and small companies that will be developing transport systems as well as their supporting technologies. These technologies include such components as self- contained life support and rocket health monitoring systems that will be required in the future. You can also be certain that future stages of this competition will be fair to both the nation’s established aerospace companies, as well as the newer entrepreneurial entrants.

What we are trying to do is to develop multiple, redundant, made in America capability for access to LEO. So we’ll never again be dependent on just one provider.

And as these companies grow and succeed, the potential for spinoff companies and job growth we expect to be substantial.

Let me also add a few words on the issue of safety. These commercial providers are already deeply involved with us in human spaceflight, and the newer companies will have cargo flights under their belt before crewed flights are considered. They will all have to meet stringent safety requirements. I have lost friends in the pursuit of exploration, and I will not allow anything to go forward that I believe is unsafe.

The government has always pioneered in areas where the investment was simply too large for any one company, and then industry followed along once an initial path has been blazed. That’s what we’re doing here, and a full 50 years into the space age, we think it’s an idea whose time has come.”

Those are some pretty direct words coming from the NASA administrator. Of course, I don’t think they’ll have any effect on the die-hard opponents of the new plan, but I’m posting them here so that readers who just want to know what’s going on are aware of what NASA’s leadership has to say.

How would you “Open NASA”?

February 17, 2010

As you may or may not have heard, the White House has issued an “Open Government” directive to all government agencies which requires them to come up with a plan for how they will become more participatory, collaborative and transparent. To help develop this plan, each agency, including NASA, has been given an “IdeaScale” site where members of the public can make suggestions and vote on the suggestions of others. That’s where you come in!

Do you have an idea for how NASA can be more “open” to the public? Some novel way for space enthusiasts to use spacecraft data? Some way for the public to actively help with NASA’s missions? Some piece of information about NASA that you wish you had access to but could never find? Now is your chance! Head on over to the OpenNASA site and submit your suggestion. Or just take a look at the ideas already there and vote them up or down.

To steal the tagline from NASA Watch: “It’s YOUR space agency. Get involved. Take it back. Make it work – for YOU.”