Where there is a fork in the road, take both paths

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

Where there is a fork in the road, take both paths.

I’m not sure where I heard that fractured bit of advice, but America’s future in space is going to require going along multiple paths, and folks arguing government versus commercial endeavors are just wasting their breath. We are going to need both.

Last week NASA had a successful test flight of the Orion deep space vehicle, which is intended to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Sure, the destinations and the other equipment needed are still surrounded in uncertainty, but having a large capsule that can handle reentry from interplanetary trajectories is part of the puzzle that will be needed. So the success is encouraging, and the publicity gained is a shot in the arm for NASA. The rhetoric (“we are on our way to Mars”) may be a bit overblown, but it’s all about marketing, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, next week SpaceX hopes to land the first stage of a Falcon 9 booster on a barge in the Atlantic. This is the next step in their plan to develop reusable boosters. If the private space segment can develop reliable reusable boosters without government research funds, which would be an impressive achievement. It goes without saying that reducing the cost to orbit is crucial to establishing a sustainable program of space development that can lead to permanent space settlements, no matter where they may be. Let’s hope that test is successful as well.

I try not to see these progressive test programs as competing. We are going to need cheaper reusable rockets and more capable deep space craft that can carry a crew beyond LEO. Let’s get behind both efforts and not constantly find things to criticize. I see a lot of this bickering and belittling in the various space blogs and it’s tiresome.

The Spirit of St. Louis

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

In 1982, I was living in St. Louis and working for McDonnell Douglas and I was part of a group of space enthusiasts who were planning for a Spaceweek event that summer. In May of that year, the first meeting was held of the St. Louis Space Frontier, a chapter of the L5 Society. Ten years later, changes in the aerospace industry caused me and several other chapter leaders to move away from Missouri, and after a few more years, the club went dormant.

About a year ago, several of the folks who were involved in original chapter and some new folks decided to resurrect the St. Louis Space Frontier, and they just held a regional space development conference called Gateway to Space over the weekend of November 7-9, 2014. I had been in touch with the organizers and was happy to help them with this event, which I attended as both a presenter and a panel moderator. They had a very full and well-rounded program, with three parallel tracks going at times. The speakers covered all the usual topics at an NSS conference, from planetary science to commercial space to living on the Moon. A nice touch was the inclusion of arts and culture, with several artists exhibiting and even demonstrating their work, plus musicians and a fashion show.

This event was well supported by the NSS national office, as they held a board of directors meeting in conjunction with the event. They have been encouraging chapters to hold regional conferences for some time, as these events were much more common back in the 1980s and 90s. Some of the board members who came included NSS executive director Mark Hopkins, Jeffrey Liss, Larry Ahearn, Dale Amon, Bruce Pittman, Al Globus, Lynne Zielinski, John Strickland, Dale Skran, and others. The presence of these folks enabled the St. Louis chapter to show what a small dedicated team can accomplish in regards to a weekend conference. Hopefully this success will encourage other chapters to host similar events. Such regional conferences can be an alternative to the often expensive and unwieldy ISDC event. Having more opportunities for space advocates to learn and interact is a good thing to support.

I gave a talk on Orbital Sciences programs and also moderated a panel on “The Rocky Road to Space Settlement”. Christine Nobbe was the chair of this conference and her idea was to try to address the difficult question of how are we ever going to make any progress towards having people living in space permanently. I used my “road to Mars” presentation as the basis for an overview, as the challenges are very similar. Real progress towards space settlement will need to address these three questions:

  • How will we get there? What technology will we use?
  • What is the path? Moon, asteroids, Mars, free-space?
  • Why go at all?

The panel was a bit large at eight members plus myself, but fortunately not everyone had charts and we had two full hours. It was a bit like herding cats, but everyone shared their perspective, and I attempted to relate how it is progress in this area is going to take ideas and inputs from experts coming from many backgrounds. The bottom line consensus, such as it was, it that government programs are not likely to lead directly to settlements, although they will help pave the way (by pushing the technology for example), and while settlements are probably going to have to be privately developed, the business plan for successfully achieving this involves a lot of arm waving.

GtoS Panel 110914a

I had a lot of fun participating in and listening to all of the programming. What was most enjoyable was meeting up with people I had not seen in 22 years. There was a Friday evening event at the old McDonnell Douglas headquarters corporate museum called the Prologue Room. They had a group of retirees who had worked on the Mercury and Gemini capsules that were built in St. Louis. In this group was a former program manager and department head that I worked for, and it was really nice to talk to them and share my career story from the years since I left. And seeing old friends from the 1980s version of St. Louis Space Frontier was very special.

I left with an optimistic feeling that there is new energy out there in people who still believe in the dream of exploring and living in space and the benefits that will bring to humanity. Hopefully this spirit of St. Louis will inspire other NSS chapters to pick up the pace and continue the work of outreach and awareness of the promise of the space frontier.

Bumps in the Road

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

Last week we saw two serious set-backs for the commercial space industry. The Antares failure underscores the need for modern, domestic liquid fueled rocket engines, while Virgin Galactic’s tragic loss of SpaceShip2 and its co-pilot reminds us of the inherent risks of rocket-powered flight.

The Antares failure appears to be related to the use of old Russian NK-33 engines modified to the AJ-26 configuration. This could put more pressure on Congress to fund development of domestic liquid fueled engines. But Orbital Sciences has just announced that they will discontinue use of these engines and advance their plans to use a different engine (rumored to be the newer Russian RD-193). They had previously announced plans for this upgrade, and the accident will speed up this process to the extent possible. Still, implementing this upgrade will take time, and apparently the new Antares version won’t fly until 2016. The next Antares flight was originally scheduled for April of 2015. Meanwhile, the November 5 press release notes that to maintain performance on the Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will fly one or two Cygnus missions using a completely different booster. This is a clever approach. Instead of spending money on building another Antares, they will buy a different launch vehicle (my guess is a Delta II), thus minimizing the financial hit to the CRS program.

The accident could have been worse. Despite the spectacular explosion, initial reports suggest the Wallops launch pad sustained only minor damage. If there is any other positive to come from this failure, it is that it underscores the need for redundant access to orbit. Having both SpaceX and Orbital under contract for resupply services provides independent capabilities so that a problem in one system does not shut down the resupply program completely. This is why it will be wise to implement the Commercial Crew program with two contractors using completely different hardware designs (including boosters).

The Virgin Galactic accident is a somewhat different animal. You have a tragic loss of life, but the program was a non-governmental purely commercial tourist industry initiative. This set-back has no impact on the viability of any government space program other than to sour the overall mood for commercial efforts. I believe Richard Branson and Virgin will not give up because of this accident. On the other hand, it will add delay and concern to an effort that was already many years behind schedule. I think the biggest threat will be Branson’s ability to continue to get investors to support this program. This accident killed the co-pilot, lost an expensive flight vehicle, and will involve a lengthy investigation. This will all add another year or more until the time when the program can begin to generate revenue.

Space advocates need to remember that Virgin Galactic is a business. In spite of the rhetoric from Branson and the folks at Virgin Galactic about making space accessible to the masses, they still need to make money. At some point, their investors may realize that this endeavor is not going to be profitable for a long, long time. It will be interesting to see if funding becomes a problem for this program.

Meanwhile there is some good news on the space front, as there are some exciting days coming in the near term. The Rosetta comet mission plans to drop the Philae lander on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12, and the first Orion capsule launch is set for December 4 on an Atlas vehicle. Let’s hope these ambitious efforts are successful and we can share some excitement about what is possible in the never-dull world of space exploration and development.

Future Plans for NSS Phoenix

As we head into Fall, it needs to be noted that we will be electing officers for another two-year term coming up at the end of 2014. Please consider getting active and running for an office. Related to this, we will be having a planning meeting at the “Mesa Community Family Restaurant” at 535 N. Country Club Drive right after the October meeting.  Anyone can attend, but it will be mostly to discuss future events, meeting topics, special projects, etc. Start thinking about what you’d like to see this group do. I hope to see some new faces there.

America’s Next Manned Space Vehicles

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

NASA will soon select which company will build America’s next manned spacecraft. The winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) Program are expected to be announced any day now. Here are my thoughts and predictions (as if they matter).

I think there are a small number of key factors to consider when picking a new crew carrying spacecraft. Ideally we’d have two designs carried into operational use in case one is grounded for some reason, so they should have some fundamental differences.

  1. You want two different launch vehicles (i.e., don’t pick two that use Atlas V)

That means SpaceX and either Boeing or Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser)

  1. You want two types of landing modes (i.e. don’t pick two capsules)

That means Sierra Nevada and either Boeing or SpaceX

  1. You’d like to avoid rough landings (Boeing uses airbags on land)

That means Sierra Nevada (runway) and SpaceX (rocket assisted landing)

Based on these simple criteria, I’d pick SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. But based on intangibles, I think NASA will select SpaceX and Boeing.  There is this rule:

  • You want at least one experienced company with a history of manned spacecraft.

That means Boeing. Also Boeing (and probably SpaceX) has better marketing (bigger budgets) than Sierra Nevada. While I personally would like to see a lifting body in the mix, I’m afraid Sierra Nevada will be left out.

So we’ll see.

For more details on this program there is a good article here:


The State of Space

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

A year ago I posted a note here about the upcoming busy summer. Just about all of those missions were successful, although at that time SpaceX was planning on a dozen or so launches in 2014 along with the initial test flight of the Falcon Heavy. It does not look like they will hit that launch rate and Falcon Heavy certainly won’t fly this year.

I give SpaceX a lot of credit for investing in the development of reusable rockets. I am enthusiastic about a company that spends a lot of its own resources on this type of R&D. The spectacular recent test failure of the Falcon 9R Dev 1 test vehicle was a setback, but not a fatal blow to that effort. You learn from failures. The level of sophistication to include an autodestruct upon detecting an out-of-limits condition is impressive.

I see a lot of comments on line downplaying the impact of this setback. I wonder if it was a NASA test vehicle that crashed, would critics cut them the same slack? People seem to be eager to jump all over NASA when they have a setback (like the announced delay in the first flight of the SLS heavy lift rocket). But SpaceX gets a free pass, or even enthusiastic support for pushing the envelope. NASA, being taxpayer funded, has gotten into a situation where failure is not tolerated, thus testing may be more conservative, and progress slower.

Earlier this week, the Space Launch System passed a design review that enables the program to move forward. Unfortunately, the first flight slipped yet again. I have mixed feelings on this program. I think the US needs a big rocket, and I understand the problem that NASA doesn’t have enough money to develop a big rocket and the payloads to go on it. Maybe you do it in parallel. What are the options? You could not develop a big rocket and try to figure some other way to get beyond low Earth orbit (BEO). Lots of small rockets may work but look at the trouble it took to build a space station that way.

You could rely on a private firm to develop something that may or may not meet NASA requirements (like the SpaceX “Mars Colonial Transport” which is a viewgraph rocket). The Falcon Heavy doesn’t provide the capability of SLS but it’s a lot cheaper. The design and control of that vehicle is in private hands but the first BEO missions are undoubtedly going to be government sponsored. I hear arguments that a government developed and owned rocket will be ridiculously expensive, and I can’t argue that. But politically, I don’t think NASA (and its Congressional sponsors) can sit on their hands and do nothing, or wait for an Elon Musk to develop a big rocket. Doing nothing would be self-defeating – admitting that you cannot afford deep space manned exploration. Maybe we can’t.

So we end up playing “pretend” that we can afford to explore BEO. I think that SLS (and similarly the Asteroid Redirect Mission) is an attempt to do what we can with the resources we are given. It may not be a complete program, but the alternative is to do nothing. I don’t agree that hoping some private entity is a politically acceptable alternative. It may be a practical and realistic one, but politics and the workings of Washington DC are often neither practical nor realistic.

Reality Bites

This stuff is hard.

SpaceX finally launched a commercial payload on July 14 after a couple of months of delays for various reasons. They had originally planned for about a dozen launches in 2014 but as of mid-July they have only pulled off two.

We recently reached the ten year anniversary of the first private suborbital spaceflight with SpaceShip One. Folks are wondering what happened to that promise of passenger trips to 60 km within two years. Virgin Galactic has only had one test flight this year, and reports are that they may need to redesign their main propulsion system.

A report was issued by the National Research Council that downplayed the significance of 3D printing as used to support manned spaceflight. Sure, such a printer is headed to the space station and that’s a great step, but 3D printing is not anywhere close to the point of say, building a replacement circuit board with all the electronics on it. Maybe you can print a toothbrush, but this technology is not yet a game changer as some people would have you believe.

Images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenk as seen by the approaching Rosetta space probe show it to be dual-lobed, possibly a binary object with a respectable spin rate. This will make it a challenge to drop the Philae lander on it, and give pause to folks wishing to start mining asteroids.

A GAO report suggests NASA has not been provided sufficient budget to implement the Space Launch System program. That is not surprising, as Congress often imposes strict program requirements on agencies like NASA then fails to provide adequate funding. The agencies try to cut corners to meet the budget, which results in missing problems or just poorly managed programs. Then Congress asks why the program is in trouble.

All the news isn’t bad. SpaceX had another successful first stage landing test on their latest launch, and the Orbital Sciences Antares and Cygnus had a trouble-free ISS resupply mission. My point is to keep in mind that space flight isn’t simple, even after fifty years.

This stuff is hard.

Commentary by Michael Mackowski