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Friday, September 19, 2014

America's Second Space Station

Part of the new NASA SLS/Orion program is a new space station at the Earth/Moon L-2 Langrangian orbit, literally beyond the far side of the moon. It is called Skylab II. Like the original Skylab concept, it is built out of the liquid hydrogen tanks of a single SLS launch, as opposed to the ten years and 115 flights required to build the ISS. With this same technology NASA will be able to quickly (and relatively cheaply) deploy space stations with more living area than the ISS, basically anywhere in the solar system. Charlie Bolden's master plan is starting to emerge here. It's actually kind of brilliant. And it's starting to look a helluva lot like Wernher von Braun's.

By naming this "Skylab II" I think NASA is implicitly acknowledging that the International Space Station is and always was mostly a Russian endeavor, more "Mir II" than "Freedom," more "Beta" than "Alpha." This isn't a bad thing; were it not for the Russians and Roscosmos right now, we would not have any human presence in space at all, and the ISS would be just an empty and decaying shell of space junk, if it had ever existed at all. But I am very happy to see the US back in the game.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, pilot of the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery, and commander of the space shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, seems to be shifting NASA's narrative away from the space shuttle and ISS, and toward SLS/Orion as a continuation of the Saturn V/Apollo program. It isn't a bad narrative. When the SLS program was first announced, it looked a lot like a Saturn V + spare space shuttle solid boosters + a rebuilt Apollo space capsule + a lot of duct tape. It looked like we were planning to go to Mars on a rocket built out of spare parts. But SLS/Orion has evolved a great deal since then, both as an actual spacecraft and as a concept, and as the cornerstone of a new, rather bold space exploration program. I wasn't a huge fan of the Ares/Constellation program, not for any technical reason, but because I wanted to see NASA's budget spent more on unmanned probes deeper into space. The Mars landers and rovers have changed my opinion on this. From Viking to Curiosity they have performed amazing science. But realistically, all of the science performed on Mars combined since 1976 could have been accomplished by one reasonably bright human in one reasonably productive afternoon. It's time to get boots on the ground. SLS/Orion is going to make that possible, soon. Charlie Bolden's "rocket to everywhere" is rapidly becoming a very fine piece of hardware, indeed.

Spirit of St Louis and the DC 3

On Tuesday afternoon NASA announced that the Boeing CST-100 spacecraft and SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft would become the replacements for the space shuttle program, and begin ferrying US crews to the International Space Station and other destinations in low earth orbit by 2017. NASA's SLS/Orion program will take the lead on deep space exploration, to asteroids, Mars and beyond. NASA itself seems to be abandoning the moon altogether, but Bigelow Aerospace seems hell bent on colonizing it on their own, which is excellent. Exciting times, for those who care about such things.

I think that the combination of brash, innovative SpaceX and solid, competent and experienced Boeing will be an excellent one. Elon Musk has made it very clear that his goal is to build a city (not research facility, or colony; "city") on Mars soon enough for him to retire on, with or without help from NASA. Boeing is looking to corner the market on cheap, safe and utterly routine spaceflight; to do for spaceflight what they've already done for commercial jet air travel. In their own ways, each goal is incredibly ambitious, and fully achievable with the teams involved. I'm really, really happy to see these two moving forward in realizing commercial spaceflight.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Space Launch System, a reality check

In the past few days I've seen several discussions (based, so far as I can tell, much more on politics than any real science) about how the new NASA Space Launch System (crewed spaceflight to the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond) should be abandoned, either in favor of the old Constellation/Ares program or Elon Musk's SpaceX program. Some of the arguments put forward have been patently absurd, so I made a quick graphic here to illustrate why.

So, the Ares I (Bush administration) program was abandoned because Ares I was grossly over budget, years behind schedule and had absolutely nothing to show for any of this. The very large R&D budget had all been spent on the R, with nothing left over for D. The later-to-be-developed Ares IV and Ares V rockets showed more promise, but were scrubbed along with the Ares I.

The SLS (Obama administration) Block I, like Ares IV and V, is based partly on "legacy" Space Shuttle hardware. But in order to meet the congressional mandate of having this off the launchpad by 2017, NASA heavily relied also on legacy hardware from the Saturn V. No new hardware means no R&D; SLS Block I is, amazingly, actually a bit ahead of schedule. The SLS Block II spacecraft, which rely in turn on SLS Block I technology, are essentially the Ares IV and Ares V. See illustration for comparison.

Arguing that Ares is a better platform than SLS is akin to arguing that Muhammed Ali was a better boxer than Cassius Clay.

SpaceX, meanwhile, has been fantastically successful so far at launching uncrewed cargo vessels to the International Space Station in low earth orbit, and by 2017 the Dragon Rider spacecraft will be taking crews to the ISS as well. But the Dragon program is basically a redux of the old NASA Gemini program. Which is excellent, and inspired even, but the transition from Gemini to Apollo was one of the most expensive undertakings in human history. Musk could sell a thousand Teslas a day and not be able to build something capable of taking humans to Mars. It is not possible to simply "scale-up" from an earth-orbital spacecraft to an interplanetary (or even translunar) one; the Soviets tried this with disastrous results. Musk has discussed the possibility of developing a rocket to Mars, and I believe he has the know-how to do it. But it's not on the drawing boards yet, it doesn't even exist as a power-point presentation, and I have yet to hear a plausible answer to the question of how he would pay for it.

So, for better or worse, SLS and the Orion spacecraft are America's space program right now, and there isn't a credible replacement for them in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day of Remembrance

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace Where never lark, or ever eagle flew — And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

High Flight — John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Apollo 1

27 January 1967

Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom

Challenger STS-51L

28 January 1986

Sharon "Christa" McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee. Ronald McNair, Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka

Columbia STS-107

1 February 2003

Kalpana Chawla, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon, David M. Brown, William C. McCool, and Michael P. Anderson

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ice Hockey

The European Space Agency is planning a mission to try to actually deflect an asteroid from its trajectory. This could be really important to us if we ever found a large asteroid to be on a collision course with earth. Good on them.

Asteroid deflection mission seeks smashing ideas

15 January 2013

A space rock several hundred metres across is heading towards our planet and the last-ditch attempt to avert a disaster – an untested mission to deflect it – fails. This fictional scene of films and novels could well be a reality one day. But what can space agencies do to ensure it works?

ESA is appealing for research ideas to help guide the development of a US–European asteroid deflection mission now under study.

Concepts are being sought for both ground- and space-based investigations, seeking improved understanding of the physics of very high-speed collisions involving both man-made and natural objects in space.

ESA’s call will help to guide future studies linked to the Asteroid Impact and Deflection mission – AIDA.

This innovative but low-budget transatlantic partnership involves the joint operations of two small spacecraft sent to intercept a binary asteroid.

The first Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, designed by the US Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will collide with the smaller of the two asteroids.

Meanwhile, ESA’s Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) craft will survey these bodies in detail, before and after the collision.

The impact should change the pace at which the objects spin around each other, observable from Earth. But AIM’s close-up view will ‘ground-truth’ such observations.

“The advantage is that the spacecraft are simple and independent,” says Andy Cheng of Johns Hopkins, leading the AIDA project on the US side. “They can both complete their primary investigation without the other one.”

But by working in tandem, the quality and quantity of results will increase greatly, explains Andrés Gálvez, ESA AIDA study manager: “Both missions become better when put together – getting much more out of the overall investment.

“And the vast amounts of data coming from the joint mission should help to validate various theories, such as our impact modelling.”

Last week the 325 m Apophis asteroid passed close to Earth, and in mid-February the recently discovered 2012 DA14 space rock will pass closer than many satellites.

ESA is seeking to assess the impact hazard from Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) through its Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme.

“AIDA offers a promising platform for the test and demonstration of different deflection methods,” adds Detlef Koschny, managing SSA’s NEO effort. “It is therefore important to ask the users early on what they’d like to do with a mission like this.”

For some time, ESA and its international partners have been studying missions to investigate asteroid deflection techniques.

The most popular concept involves a ‘hypervelocity impact’ – a collision at multiple kilometres per second, at such high speed that materials do not just shatter car-crash-style but are vaporised, turning even metal and solid rock into the hot soup of charged particles called plasma.

Such impact testing would help assess if asteroid deflection could be accomplished.

Increased knowledge of hypervelocity impacts would also have wider uses. Planetary scientists would gain fresh insight into our Solar System’s violent early history, including clues to the origin of life and the magnitude of extinction events.

And in practical terms, growing levels of orbital debris increases the risk of highly destructive hypervelocity impacts with critical satellite infrastructure or humans working in orbit. Studying this kind of impact will help to quantify the hazard and inspire protection techniques.

The AIDA Call for Experiment Ideas is being released on 1 February at For further information, see

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Flustercluck, part deux

The oil rig Kulluk is now aground on Sitkalidak Island, just off of Kodiak AK. Here's a map. Not sure where on the island it's aground.


(CNN) -- A Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling barge remained grounded Tuesday on an island off southern Alaska amid a fierce winter storm that hindered recovery efforts, Coast Guard and Alaskan authorities reported.

The Shell-owned rig Kulluk was being towed to Seattle when it began encountering trouble Sunday, the Coast Guard said. One tug needed help after its engines failed; a replacement had to cut the rig loose Monday night during a storm that whipped up 24-foot waves in the Gulf of Alaska.

The 266-foot rig ran aground off Sitkalidak Island, about 200 miles south of Anchorage, on Monday night. A joint command was set up to head off any possible environmental damage, but crews had not been able to confirm the Kulluk's condition Tuesday morning, those authorities reported.

The Kulluk had 139,000 gallons (4,400 barrels) of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid on board; no leaks had been detected early Tuesday.

Weather conditions were expected to improve through the rest of the week, with seas subsiding from 24 feet Tuesday to 11 feet by Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Susan Childs, Shell's incident commander, said more than 250 people were working on the response. The rig grounded in an area of Ocean Bay, where water depth is 32 feet to 48 feet, according to a release from the response team.

The Kulluk is part of Shell's controversial effort to drill for oil in the remote Arctic, a project that caused widespread concern among environmentalists and was held up after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It finished drilling operations in October, and its 18-person crew was evacuated Saturday.

The rig was being used to drill in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska's North Slope. Shell says it's working at far less depth and lower pressures than the BP well that erupted off Louisiana, killing 11 men aboard and unleashing an undersea gusher that took three months to cap.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates more than 90 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may be recoverable by drilling. And the shrinking of the region's sea ice -- which hit record lows in 2012 -- has created new opportunities for energy exploration in the region.

Climate researchers say that a decrease in sea ice is a symptom of a warming climate, caused largely by the combustion of carbon-rich fossil fuels. The science is politically controversial but generally accepted as fact by most scientists.