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

Videos from July Meeting on Google Lunar X-Prize

Athena has compiled links to the videos that Chuck showed at our meeting here:

NSS Phx Monthly Meeting

Saturday, Jul 19, 2014, 11:00 AM

Humanist Community Center
627 W. Rio Salado Parkway

9 Space Advocates Went

Monthly meetingOur July meeting will be at our usual date and location on the third Saturday at the Humanist Center in Tempe.  The meeting will start at 11 am.As it is a day prior to the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11, we will have a lunar-themed presentation. Chuck Lesher will report on the latest progress in the Google Lunar X-prize competition….

Check out this Meetup →


The National Research Council Report on Human Spaceflight

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

On June 4, 2014, the National Research Council issued a congressionally authorized report on the future of human spaceflight. (The report was requested in 2010.) The bottom line of their recommendation is that NASA should focus on Mars as their ultimate goal, but they allowed that there are various options and stepping stones needed to get there, including lunar and asteroid missions. Yet they did not recommend which path to follow. They also acknowledged that the current trend of flat budgets is not likely to be adequate to successfully carry out such a program. So to me, the message is that NASA has many options, we don’t know which one is best, and NASA isn’t likely to get enough funding for any of them to result in putting people on Mars. Thanks and have a nice day.

The report lists all the possible space exploration destinations (Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) and makes the obvious conclusion that a human landing on Mars is the most challenging, so that should be the ultimate goal. It took a committee of experts to figure that out?

They also addressed the reasons to send people to Mars. Personally I found it interesting that the list pretty much matches what I have found and presented in my own “Hard Road to Mars” presentation. They conclude that none of those reasons are compelling enough to “justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight”, yet when taken in combination, it makes sense to support the effort. In my presentation, I had a similar list of reasons to go to Mars and a similar conclusion. Here is a mapping of my “Hard Road to Mars” motivators versus the committee’s.

NRC Report Mackowski’s Reasons for Going
Economic benefits Profit
National Security Geopolitical
National stature and international relations Geopolitical
Inspiration of students and citizens Exploration
Scientific discovery Science
Human survival Colonization
Shared destiny and aspiration to explore Exploration

They, like many studies before, found that public interest in space is favorable but shallow. It’s neat but not a priority, and by the way, don’t spend too much money on it until you solve all our other problems first.

The committee suggested NASA’s current plan of developing a beyond Earth orbit capability (which sounds like Orion and SLS although those programs were not mentioned by name) is too vague. They claim that NASA’s plan does not have a “stepping stone” architecture with clear milestones that will result in a sustainable program. NASA sees the ARM project as a sort of stepping stone mission, or at least a demo of some of the capabilities needed for a deep space mission. Yet the committee makes a point that the Asteroid Redirect Mission has no direct benefit to a human Mars mission and suggests that a return to the lunar surface would have more value in reducing the risk of a Mars mission. [From my view, this may be true, but currently NASA has no budget for putting people back on the Moon, but could pull off ARM within existing budgets.] Since the NRC report calls for increased budgets to do these things, how can NASA plan for more ambitious missions (lunar excursions, for example) until the budget is there?

As the report says NASA is on the wrong path to Mars, what is the right path? They propose a “pathway” with stepwise markers that make it clear progress is being made. They don’t like the “flexible approach” (which has no specific destination) and suggest a focus on Mars would be a more efficient use of resources. Then they propose several options to get there including guidelines on how to develop such a pathway but they don’t make specific recommendations as to which path to follow.

Fortunately they do recommend including commercial and international collaboration and an emphasis on sustainability. But the report was too weak and vague in that area. There is almost no consideration of boosters other than SLS, for example, nor how the development of low cost launch vehicles could play into all of this. Some other pathway studies (such as the NSS) are strongly based on commercial involvement to result in a sustainable space infrastructure that is less dependent on unpredictable government funding levels.

The most specific recommendations were to develop some necessary technologies that will be required for deep space missions (power, propulsion, Mars entry, descent, and landing, etc.). This sounds like a plan that is still very infrastructure-oriented, driven by capabilities, and still smells like the “flexible approach” with an acknowledgement that Mars is the ultimate goal. My concern is that if the technology development focuses on Mars only, that may leave out thedevelopments needed to create a sustainable cislunar space economy.

They also make the obvious conclusion that whatever plan is chosen, it must be adequately funded and supported across multiple administrations. We all know those are the problems but this report provides no solutions.

A lot of the report is stuff that space advocates and aerospace industry leaders already knew. No really new ideas are proposed, and no new insights or answers are offered. They don’t think NASA’s current flexible approach is going to get us to Mars but it’s all the agency can afford. So from my perspective, this is another space policy report that is going to sit on the shelf and collect dust.

More Thoughts from the ISDC

… or Kicking the Same Can Down the Same Road and Getting Nowhere

In my earlier post on the recent NSS International Space Development Conference (ISDC), I mentioned that not much has changed since my more frequent opportunities to attend the ISDC over twenty years ago. It would seem that we (the NSS and like-minded space advocates) have been using the same sales pitch for the last thirty years and we are getting the same results. Not much. I found similar sentiments in commentaries posted by space historian Dwayne Day ( and policy analyst Jeff Foust (

One example was Mark Hopkins’ talk with the headline “Space is Our Future” (in black Helvetica text on a featureless viewgraph background). Wasn’t that our tagline in 1980? After over three decades of grass-roots and Washington, DC-based advocacy, the US still does not have a coherent long term space strategy. Similarly, the American public has not bought into the concept of an expanded space exploration and development effort with any sort of passion or excitement. Maybe that’s why we don’t have a coherent policy.

I submit that we need to update our approach and our message, or at least find a new way of summarizing our vision in a short statement. If “Space is Our Future” was true in 1980, and we still try to use that line today, it dismisses all the progress of the past 34 years. In 1980 there were precious few planetary missions planned, the only space station was Russian, and the Shuttle had yet to fly. Now we have a functioning research lab with a crew of six in orbit, robots crawling around Mars and heading to Pluto, and a burgeoning private space industry. I contend that space is not just in our future but is well-established today. We should stop the negative thinking and mindset that we have made no progress. We may not have tourist flights to 100 km yet or factories in space, but we have come a long way.

On the other hand, Hopkins painted a rosy picture of how well the NSS is doing. I’m not so sure about that. NSS membership is simultaneously dwindling and aging. The Society has not adapted to the internet and that is hurting chapters and recruiting. We still have not been able to articulate our reasons to send people into space at all. There are many reasons but none have proved compelling or else we would be further along.

Advocacy groups also need to keep their message up to date. NSS-types (and L5 veterans in particular) have always been enamored with living in space. They want to go into space. I understand that – it’s awesome and cool. Their original reason the L5 Society supported space based solar power (SSP) satellites was that it would take hundreds of astronauts on-orbit to build the giant structures. That would be the ticket to space for ordinary people – the need to manually build gigantic power satellites. A fall out of the SSP model was that they were so big you needed giant rockets to launch them (to take us to space cheaper!) or you had to mine extraterrestrial resources. Both developments would foster a huge growth in space based industry.

The latest concepts for SSP take advantage of advances in performance and robotics, however, and no longer require space colonies as assembly bases or ET materials. That puts a big hole in that original plan go get more people in space. There are still concepts for large scale habitats in free space but the economic case for building them is still rather fuzzy. Lunar and Mars colonies are touted as ways to ensure we establish ourselves as a multi-planet species so as not to go the way of the dinosaurs should some catastrophe make our home planet uninhabitable. That is a noble goal, but it has yet to be established that humans can thrive (or even reproduce) in those low gravity environments.

Another example from the ISDC was Rick Tumlinson, who gave another one of his preacher-style sermons where he explains his vision of humanity’s future in space. He has even developed his performance to the point where he includes peppy background music to work the audience. Most notably, Tumlinson’s ultimate reason for supporting manned spaceflight isn’t economics, or exploration, or survival of the species, it’s “because we want to”. Sorry, that seems so infantile to me. I want to live in a nice cabin in the mountains, but I can’t afford it. So I should usurp national technology development policy just so my friends and I can go live on a mountaintop, just because we like the view? We’re not even pretending we can make a living there, or provide a useful service, we just want to go. I can imagine how well that message will go over with the single mom with two jobs or the married dad with none. That may inspire the faithful but it won’t bring in new parishioners.

So what is the right way to convey this message? The current NSS Vision statement is the closest thing I could find for a summary of the “message”:

People living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”

That statement is a good summary of the long term goal (i.e., vision) of the Society, but I’m not sure it does well as a marketing slogan. When you include phrases like communities beyond the Earth people are going to roll their eyes and dismiss whatever follows because you are clearly out of touch with reality, or at least the reality of the man on the street.

My bottom line here is that space development has always been difficult to sell to the public. It’s been that way for the over thirty years I have been involved with this movement, and frankly we should only expect that to change when the space “ecology” (technology, business models, commercial utilization, etc.) changes. That’s starting to happen but it is a very slow process and folks are understandably running out of patience.

I’m afraid I don’t have any good answer, but thanks for listening to my observations on this topic.

June 21st Meeting Features Dr. Dave Williams (Again!)

Our June meeting will be at our usual date and location on the third Saturday (June 21, 11 am) at the Humanist Center in Tempe. Dr. Dave Williams will talk about “Exploring the Solar System”, which is an overview of the NASA missions exploring destinations throughout the solar system.

Dr. David A. Williams is an Associate Research Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Williams is the Director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies, the NASA Regional Planetary Information Facility at ASU. He is also the Director of the NASA Planetary Aeolian Laboratory at the Ames Research Center in California. David is currently performing research in volcanology and planetary geology, with a focus on planetary mapping, geochemical, and remote sensing studies. His research has included computer modeling of seismic wave propagation through planetary interiors, visible and near-infrared spectroscopy of the lunar surface, planetary geologic mapping of the satellites of Jupiter, the planet Mars, and the asteroid Vesta, computer modeling of the physical and geochemical evolution of lava flows in a variety of planetary environments, and petrologic study of lava samples from Mount St Helens. He was involved with NASA’s Magellan Mission to Venus and Galileo Mission to Jupiter. He is a Co-Investigator on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter mission, and he was a Participating Scientist on NASA’s Dawn Mission to asteroid Vesta. David is a Past Chair of the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society of America, and has served on several NASA committees including a five-year term on the NASA Outer Planets Advisory Group.

Mike Mackowski will also give a report on my trip to LA to attend the NSS’s International Space Development Conference, as reported elsewhere on this blog.

Please join us!

The 33rd International Space Development Conference

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

I attended the 33rd International Space Development Conference from May 14-18, held in Los Angeles, CA. This is only the second ISDC I have been to since the early 1990s, when I was able to attend more frequently (I went to the Tucson event held in 2000). In that time a lot of progress has been made in the development of space, but a lot of things are still the same.

This was a great conference from the perspective of being able to hear speakers offering the latest status and plans for all sorts of space exploration, business, and infrastructure initiatives. There were many “big names” from the space arena, including Buzz Aldrin, Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Greason (XCOR), astronauts (Richard Garriott, Chris Ferguson, Rick Searfoss, etc.), engineers and scientists (Dr. John Lewis, John Mankins, Geoffrey Notkin), and folks from the NewSpace community (Rick Tumlinson, Will Pomerantz, Taber McCallum, Art Dula, etc.). If anything, the conference was too big with too many tracks. Most days had seven or more parallel tracks. For someone like me who does not attend on a regular basis, and hopes to get some first hand updates on progress in these areas, you really have to pick and chose what sessions to attend. I thought there was some “fluff” that could have been eliminated to make things simpler (do we really need sessions on “Humans, Exponential Perception, Compassion, and the Universe”?).

On the plus side, I was pleased to hear first-hand updates on such subjects as XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle, space elevators, space solar power, utilization of space resources, and approaches to building affordable space infrastructure. There seems to be a consensus in this space community that a flexible infrastructure is needed more than a focussed development program aimed at a specific destination (say, Mars). By developing elements that can be used by all of these goals (Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.) it is more likely that a sustainable space economy will actually occur.

Over the past few years there seems to have been a debate over NASA’s future plans. Should they develop the advanced technology we need to make space exploration and development less costly and more effective (infrastructure), or should they pick a destination and develop just the technology needed for that specific goal? Most people at this conference were promoting the infrastructure path, which makes sense to me as well. The problem is that this is difficult to sell. It is much easier to get excited about sending a crew to Mars (or wherever) than designing a propellant depot at L2. Critics say NASA needs specific goals, but achieving those goals might come cheaper (and safer?) if we are patient and develop the elements we need to achieve any of the possible goals first, and even better if we can do it via commercial programs rather than via government-owned assets.

The main disappointment I had at the conference was the lack of sessions on grass roots space advocacy. The membership of NSS is declining and aging. Many speakers encouraged us to get the word out to the general public about the exciting future of space exploration and development. This means grass roots, local level advocacy. There should have been sessions on doing small local conferences, how to work with schools, how to attract young members, how to find media contacts, how to write press releases, what to say to your Congressional representatives, etc. There were no formal sessions on this.

The advantage of attending a conference like this in person (as compared to reading the presentations on line), however, is that you get to network with other like-minded advocates. Socializing at meal functions, between sessions, and at the Chapters Assembly meeting allowed me to meet many other NSS chapter activists. We were able to swap some ideas and propose new ones. This, more than anything,made attending this conference worth the effort and expense.

Thoughts from a Grouchy Old Space Skeptic

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

I am an engineer who has observed several aerospace programs that start with great promise and offer impressive capabilities while only requiring a little bit of development. More than a few of these went down in flames. Each program progressed well past the viewgraph stage, either into detailed design, or were actually built and flown. Some I worked on personally, some I watched as an observer. All had great potential, impressive technology, and many smart backers. All failed in some way, either neglecting to develop the required technology, having a flaw in the business plan, or the government customer cancelled the program due to changing requirements. Programs I worked on include:

  • Electrophoresis Operations in Space
  • National Aerospace Plane
  • Industrial Space Facility
  • Iridium

Programs I read about, that had announced contracts or press releases with launch dates include:

  • DC-X
  • Space Adventures tourist rocket (Pacific American Launch systems)
  • Space Station Freedom
  • Hermes space plane (original French version)
  • Teledesic (internet in the sky)
  • Constellation (NASA deep space exploration)
  • Various cheap rockets (OTRAG, ROTON, Kistler, AMROC, etc.)
  • Various tourist in space scams

So after living through many of these programs, I have a hard time getting too excited by folks like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow, Mars One, Planetary Resources, etc. I’ve seen it all before. They promise a lot, and maybe the technology isn’t really that difficult. It’s usually the business plan has no foundation or they have little experience in space hardware. When reality sets in, schedules slip, and the promised performance decreases or the program disappears completely. Maybe all of these efforts will be successful, but history tells us to be skeptical.

My patience is wearing thin with all the dreamy-eyed space cadets who worship anything SpaceX does and think we are ready to send people to Mars next week. Sending humans into space is not a trivial endeavor, nor is developing reusable rocket boosters. Space technology involves high energy devices that must operate with great precision and high reliability. This certainly can be done at a lower cost than we are doing it today, but I do not believe it will ever be “cheap”. The physics simply do not allow it.

Now SpaceX has a nice rocketry program, but it took them four tries to get to orbit successfully. I’m happy Elon Musk wants to get people to Mars but it is so very difficult, that I cannot get my hopes up for much progress except in the far term (think decades). I’m also excited to see him spend his own money to develop reusable rockets, but just because one of his tests achieves some success doesn’t mean we can now afford to start launching solar power satellites. The hype from jumping ahead so many steps is painful to watch.

Look how long it took to get a space station. I have been thinning my old files and news clippings and I found space station concepts with a long truss and a cupola from 1981, over thirty years ago. The program was nearly cancelled in 1992. Final assembly was eventually completed in 2010. That is thirty years from concept to reality. And a space station is relatively simple compared to a lunar base or sending a crew to Mars.

There was a news item in January of this year where Jeff Foust (of the NewSpace Journal) noted that Virgin Galactic and XCOR failed to meet test flights milestones they had announced a year earlier. Recall that Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 with a pair of suborbital flights to the edge of space. Excitement was high for a larger version that could take thrill seekers on commercial flights. In 2008 Richard Branson predicted the first commercial flight would be within 18 months. In 2009, a Virgin Galactic spokesman said the schedule would be driven by safety factors, but revenue flights could be expected in two years. It’s now five years later and they have yet to pull off even a demo of the full mission.

If developing a suborbital manned vehicle is this difficult, consider how much more difficult it will be to develop large transport spaceships to take crew and supplies to a lunar base or Mars outpost. I don’t care if it is a government program or a bunch of rich entrepreneurs, they all have to solve engineering problems and obey the laws of physics, and that is not a trivial task.

I’ve been seeing posts on-line about the Mars One foundation that wants to start a colony there by 2023. A lot of people believe this will actually happen. I see naïve debates about what kind of laptop they should bring along. Right now the closest thing to a manned interplanetary vehicle is NASA’s Orion, and it won’t fly with a crew until 2021 or so. Elon Musk has dreams about a Mars colonial ship. I like his ambition but all he has are viewgraphs. The same goes for any sort of planetary surface lander that can put people on Mars or even the Moon. With unlimited resources you might be able to develop that in ten years. Does anyone believe Mars One has those resources?

As a space advocate, bringing peoples’ visions “down to Earth” is perhaps the antithesis of what I normally try to do. But because of my own experience over the years, I don’t want to see peoples’ dreams “crash and burn” either. There is nothing wrong with promoting an exciting future in space, but we have to be realistic, and lately I’m seeing a lot unrealistic expectations out there.