The Awesome and the Tedious

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

There are some cool things going on in space exploration, and these are developments that involve true exploration. There are also a lot of things going on behind the scenes regarding how the National Space Society operates, and these can get rather tedious.

First, the awesome stuff. We are getting our first close look at two very interesting solar system bodies, Pluto and Ceres (not to mention Pluto’s several moons). Ceres, with its mysterious bright spots, get more and more intriguing as the images continue to get better. As the New Horizons spacecraft approaches Pluto, we are finally starting to see the dim planet’s personality take shape. The next couple of months will be fun and exciting.

There have also been some interesting developments in experimental space technology. The privately funded LightSail, a cubesat sponsored by the Planetary Society, successfully deployed a solar sail in low Earth orbit in early June. This technology has the potential for low cost, deep space missions with this new capability to move around the solar system. There are constraints, certainly (you don’t get anywhere fast, and it doesn’t work well in the darker deep reaches of space), but it is great progress. It is also refreshing to see success by a non-government sponsor of such technology.

Another technology demonstrator, NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), did not fare so well. This inflatable heat shield and high speed aerobrake was tested again near Hawai’i, but the supersonic parachute disintegrated shortly after deployment. They had similar issues on a previous flight, and despite what might be considered a failure, this is how you learn. By observing a failure, you understand the limits of the design, and can now go back and fix it.

These demos are great examples of how we are advancing the technology that will expand humanity into the solar system. But on the policy level, I don’t think we are making as much progress. I think most people can agree on the goal of expanding mankind into space, but not on the path to get there. You have factions supporting SLS or commercial space, NewSpace versus traditional aerospace firms, etc. This week I was observing an email debate between lunar railguns versus lunar space elevators. In my view, that is a moot argument (especially for a forum on chapter issues), since neither one is going to happen any time soon. There was also a debate on how NSS should deal with the partisan bickering in Congress over NASA’s budget. I doubt that NSS has any influence over the eventual outcome, but we sure wasted a lot of energy arguing about it on teleconferences and emails.

From my perspective as the local leader of the Phoenix Chapter of NSS, I am looking for ideas and resources from my NSS national leadership on how to sponsor effective local events, how to recruit more members, etc. While lunar elevators versus railgun launchers may be an interesting academic discussion, that is not helping me figure our how to convert some new young space enthusiasts into future leaders of NSS at the local or national level. I fear that if these young candidate leaders are exposed to the constant internal bickering, pointless debates, and ineffective meeting management that is so typical of NSS, they will want nothing to do with the group on any level. As an organization, NSS needs to grow up and become more professional in how they set policy, support local chapters, and establish their public image. The Society’s tedious tendencies in these areas may be the very reason there are so few younger people willing or interested in becoming more active and involved.

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!

September Meeting: The Road to Mars

The long-term goal for the majority of space enthusiasts is to get people to Mars. Advocates acknowledge this is an ambitious goal that will be expensive and not without risk. Over the past few years several very different proposals on how to get there have been offered. At this month’s meeting Mike Mackowski will review these various options and discuss their pros and cons. Mike is president of the Phoenix Chapter of NSS, an aerospace engineer, and a long time space advocate. The audience will be invited to offer their views on the pathways to Mars and we hope this can be a fun and interactive discussion.

The presentation will not just consider how to get to Mars but why. Space advocates often run into the same questions about why we should send people into space at all. Many reasons have been offered (international prestige, inspiration, exploration, commercial development, settlement, etc.) but which one will be the driver that final puts footprints in the Martian dirt? How can we make it permanent and not just “flags and footprints”? What will be the relative roles of government and private entities?

There has also been a lot of debate recently on what should be the next “destination”. Do we need to stop at the Moon first? Can asteroids be a practice run before attempting the deep space mission to the Red Planet? Can we use resources from the Moon or an asteroid to reduce the cost of the mission? to go next (Moon, Mars, asteroids) has heated up and is even dividing the pro-space community. So I collected my notes and reviewed some news articles and commentaries and came up with the chart you see here.


Please plan to join us at this meeting. Mike will offer his views on the subject and is looking forward to getting inputs from other people excited about the prospects of manned space exploration.

The Path to Mars

Commentary by Michael Mackowski


In my many years of being an advocate for space exploration, I run into the same questions about why we should send people into space. Recently, the debate on where to go next (Moon, Mars, asteroids) has heated up and is even dividing the pro-space community. So I collected my notes and reviewed some news articles and commentaries and came up with the chart you see at the link here:

The Path to Mars

Let’s assume that the ultimate goal is to get people to Mars. The purpose of the chart is to consider how we accomplish that. And why. What are the options along the way? Do we need to go somewhere else first? How can we make it permanent and not just “flags and footprints”? What sort of space technology do we need?

The chart does not pretend to give any answers and it certainly is not all-inclusive. It simply tries to lay out the main issues that have been debated recently and offer some quick evaluation of the various factors involved. That evaluation, unfortunately, is not very optimistic. Considering the three main issues (where, how, and why), I don’t see an easy path to Mars at all. Space travel is difficult and expensive to begin with, and when you look at the obstacles to making any option workable, it’s not a pretty picture.

On the bright side, private entities are serious about exploring and utilizing space. In the past, governments were the only institutions with the resources to do that. With better technology, commercial firms are now approaching the capabilities that were once only available to government institutions. Still, someone like Elon Musk alone could not have funded the entire Apollo program, so space enthusiasts should not have unrealistic expectations. It’s going to take a lot of patience, but there is hope out there.

Comments and feedback on the graphic are welcome.

The Celestial Shooting Gallery

by Michael Mackowski

APTOPIX Russia Meteorite

Outer space may literally be mostly empty space, but our solar system is full of large and small chunks of rocks. A few days ago, a couple of these rocks made a close pass to our home planet. One object, called asteroid DA14, was large enough to be detected about a year ago. It came within 17,200 miles of the Earth’s surface, within the ring of geostationary communications satellites we all rely on. There was enough information on this object to know in advance that it would come close, but miss us. Still, this asteroid was the closest large object to pass by the Earth that we saw ahead of time.

Meanwhile a smaller object, perhaps the size of a school bus, whizzed over Russia, and when it exploded several miles above the ground, the shock wave was strong enough to smash windows over a large area, injuring over a thousand people from flying glass. This object was too small to be detected in advance, at least with the technology we are using today.

Continue reading

General Atomics Blitzer Railgun

In 2007, building upon knowledge gained under an Office of Naval Research (ONR) Innovative Naval Prototype contract, GA initiated development of the Blitzer™ system using internal funds to accomplish two major objectives:

  • Demonstrate the technical maturity of tactically relevant railgun technologies in a proving-ground environment.
  • Generate interest in the viability of smaller Electromagnetic (EM) gun systems for use in a broader set of missions, including integrated air and missile defense (IAMD)

GA accomplished both of these objectives by demonstrating the launcher and power system technologies to full design levels in 2009 during testing with non-aerodynamic rounds, followed by testing of aerodynamic rounds during the fall of 2010.

The tests demonstrated the integration and capabilities of a tactically relevant EM Railgun launcher, pulsed power system, and projectile. The projectiles were launched by Blitzer at Mach 5 with acceleration levels exceeding 60,000 gee, and exhibited repeatable sabot separation and stable flight.

Digging Space

Commentary by Mike Mackowski


From the classic days of space science fiction to the projections of large scale operations in space from the 1960s and 70s, utilization of space resources has always been envisioned as a major part of large scale space operations. Now in the early 21st Century we finally have at least two serious companies formed whose goal is to mine asteroids.  Planetary Resources announced their plans in 2012 while this January we heard about Deep Space Industries. This is a very exciting prospect for any advocate of expanded human presence in space. Continue reading