The February meeting of the Phoenix Chapters of the National Space Society and the Moon Society will be at our usual date and location Saturday (Feb. 21, 2015, 11 am) at the Humanist Center in Mesa. Our program will be a viewing of the documentary film “Lunarcy!” This film features Moon Society former president, Peter Kokh, former NSS regional director, Chris Carson, and Apollo astronaut and artist, Alan Bean, among others.
Amazon describes this feature thus: “With wry humor and affection, Simon Ennis’ Lunarcy! follows a disparate group of dreamers and schemers who share one thing in common; they’ve all devoted their lives to the Moon.” I finally had a chance to view it myself at the regional NSS conference in St. Louis (with Carson and Kokh in the audience) and found it to be a fascinating film.
Additionally, I would like to remind you of the upcoming SpaceUp Phoenix, which will be Sat. March 7 and take the place of our normal March meeting. Advance registration is encouraged for planning purposes, and admission is only $5. Please see the website for details:
Hope to see many of you Saturday!
It’s been a while since I posted a commentary, so here we go.
I love space exploration. I follow the topic by reading books and news articles, I build space models as a hobby, I love to talk about it to groups, and I have been fortunate enough to have a job in the space industry. Sometimes I read articles that take things a bit too far. Lately there has been a lot of “hype” floating around social media sites and news articles. I see many examples of space developments being over-sold and over-promised. As I have been following this topic for over five decades, I have seen bad things happen when space programs are hyped excessively. Here are some examples of the current problem.
It’s ten years after SpaceShipOne flew and won the prize for a reusable space vehicle. But it’s still going to be many years until we will have real commercial suborbital tourist space flights. Despite the marketing material I see from Virgin Galactic, this program is not going to put hundreds of people into space. It’s joy rides to “space” altitude but a long, long way from lowering the cost to orbit.
Dusting off Old Russian Equipment
The Excalibur Almaz venture is back in the news with another shady offer to send tourists around the Moon. I saw a news item about Art Dula being involved in a lawsuit related to this program. Ever since I heard of him back in the 1980s I was always suspicious of whatever he was trying to pull off. Nothing solid ever came from a commercial program using old Soviet hardware but the idea just won’t go away.
Mars and a Comet
Wow! A comet was going to fly really close to Mars and our robots are going to have an awesome view. Well the photos came in and some show this tiny little fuzzy thing. It was hardly spectacular. Folks need to remember comets way out at Mars aren’t generally very active.
We landed on a Comet!
The first announcements of the Philae landing saw a lot of over reaction, largely because ESA didn’t have or wasn’t releasing all the data that was coming in. The fact that they announced “landing” when the initial contact was made, but in reality it had bounced and landed again TWO HOURS LATER was not announced or maybe just not understood. Everybody was congratulating themselves before all the facts were in, probably while the lander was still bouncing around. Real life science isn’t like the movies. The mission so far has been a great success, despite the bouncy landing into a dark corner of the comet. My point is that there was an excess of excitement about a mission before all the facts were known.
Not so long ago, folks were predicting the first launch of a Falcon Heavy late in 2013 or maybe early 2014, based on statements from SpaceX. Now, reports are that the first such launch won’t occur until late in 2015 at the earliest. This is why studying history is important. People should not buy into launch predictions for ANYONE’s first launch, be it private (Falcon Heavy) or government (SLS). It never happens on time when the prediction is more than six months out. Additionally, SpaceX recently (late December 2014) removed some of the date info from their published launch manifest. The hype was that they predicted over a dozen launches in each of 2014 and 2015. That is very unlikely to happen.
Google Lunar X-Prize
I love the idea of prizes to spur space development, which is a great way to get small companies involved. But I heard way too much hype about how all these little start-ups are going to do things NASA can’t or won’t. I wish they would all be successful, but this X-prize effort has been delayed over and over again. Landing on the Moon isn’t easy and people need to remember that. From a news report:
Meanwhile, “in an expected announcement,” officials with the competition announced that the deadline to win the grand prize has been pushed back one year to Dec. 31, 2016. XPRIZE Vice Chairman and President Robert K. Weiss said that the deadline was pushed back for a third time because the group recognizes that the task is “extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of financial considerations.”
A news item reported that Elon Musk of SpaceX claims their reusable rockets will reduce launch costs “to a hundredth of what they are now.” Wow. A factor of one hundred implies you re-use the same booster at least 100 times. This also ignores the costs to refurbish the rocket, or to run the tests to verify nothing broke. That is a lot of re-use for a rocket booster seeing the extreme dynamic loads of launch and landing. Even Space Shuttle orbiters never got to 100 flights. So “100X” is just hype.
At our October meeting, our speaker was LuAnn Dahlman from NOAA who spoke on climate change research. Later she sent some links to some of the info she presented, and I am finally getting around to posting those links. I apologize for the delay.
Learn more about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports at www.ipcc.ch
The US Global Change Research Program has released NCA3 – the Third National Climate Assessment. This program is a joint effort by thirteen federal agencies. For more information on the report go to
Another NOAA website offers “science and information for a climate-smart nation”.
Risky Business is a climate risk assessment from an economic perspective championed by business magnate and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former US Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and Tim Steyer. hedge fund manager and environmentalist.
The University of Cambridge, England, Institute for Sustainability Leadership addresses the implications of climate change from a variety of aspects. Learn more at
Everyone seems to do a year-end wrap up so let’s join the party and consider what this NSS chapter has accomplished during 2014.
We’ve had monthly meetings or events throughout the year with decent attendance. Most meetings had around a dozen people, with around 20 showing up to hear Tracey Dodrill (MAVEN Mars orbiter) and later for Eric Nichols (orbital debris). We had a fun joint meeting with the Tucson chapter in May (we need to do something like that again). We had summer and winter social functions and joined in with the ASU SEDS club for their Yuri’s Night celebration. Our use of the MeetUp web service brought in a lot of new faces, and we hope to see many of them on a regular basis in the future.
It’s also been an interesting and notable year in space with some historic milestones. On the negative side, we had the SS2 fatal accident and the spectacular Antares CRS Orb-3 failure. There were quite a number of firsts, however, including the amazing rendezvous and landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the ESA’s Rosetta and Philae, and the test flight of NASA’s first Orion deep space capsule. There were debut launches of Russia’s new heavy lift Angara 5 booster and India’s new GSLV Mk 3 rocket. NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew program (Boeing and SpaceX), and Congress actually passed a budget. This was decent news for NASA, providing a solid budget for planetary exploration, firm funding to continue SLS and Orion development, and enough for Commercial Crew to limp along (but short of what is really needed to keep two providers in the game).
Coming up in 2015, NSS Phoenix starts out with elections of officers (president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer) for two-year terms. The election will be at the January 17 meeting and we will also make arrangements to vote via email. Candidates are:
President Mike Mackowski
Vice President Athena Roberts
Secretary Chuck Lesher
Treasurer Pat Lonchar
Our January speaker is scheduled and should be very interesting. We have Sian Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College, who spent three months in a simulated Mars habitat in Hawaii (the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS)). She will talk about her experiences with that project. We have a few other ideas for programs and are always looking for good ideas for our meetings, so please contact me if you would like to suggest something.
We also have a quick reminder to vote for the ASU Sun Devil Satellite Lab team in their effort to get their experiment selected for the Mars One exploratory lander scheduled to head for Mars in 2018. This selection is based on popular votes, so go to this link to the SDSL site that explains step-by-step how to vote for this project:
Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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.
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.
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.