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.

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The Path to Mars

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

7/19/13

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.

Progress for Space Tourism

New Mexico Governor Signs Spaceport Liability Legislation Into Law

Spaceport America

The AP (4/3, Clausing) reports, “Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday signed into law liability-waiving legislation aimed at saving the state’s nearly quarter-billion-dollar investment in a futuristic spaceport and retaining its anchor tenant, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.”

Martinez said the new law shows the state is “not only reaffirming the major commitment New Mexicans have made to Spaceport America but we now have an even stronger opportunity to grow the number of commercial space jobs at the spaceport and across our state. This legislation will prevent lawsuit abuse and make it easier for businesses related to the space travel industry to thrive and succeed right here in New Mexico.”  The article notes that previously Virgin Galactic had protested its rent payments and had threatened to leave if the law was not passed.  In a statement yesterday, Virgin Galactic said it was always committed to the project but now more needs to be done to bring other customers to the spaceport.

The Science, Space, and Technology Committee in the 113th Congress

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has split the Energy and Environment subcommittee into two separate subcommittees, resulting in six subcommittees in the new session.

The Space and Aeronautics subcommittee will continue to be chaired by Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS). The complete list of assignments is listed below.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) was reelected as the top Democrat (“Ranking Member”) on the full committee in December. Democratic subcommittee assignments have not been announced yet.

Full Committee

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas)

Vice-Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.)

Chairman Emeritus Ralph Hall (R-Texas)

Subcommittee on Energy

Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)

Vice-Chairman Randy Weber (R-Texas)

Subcommittee on Environment

Chairman Andy Harris (R-Md.)

Vice-Chairman Chris Stewart (R-Utah)

Subcommittee on Research

Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.)

Vice-Chairman Steve Stockman (R-Texas)

Subcommittee on Space

Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.)

Vice-Chairman Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)

Subcommittee on Technology

Chairman Thomas Massie (R-Ky.)

Vice-Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.)

Subcommittee on Oversight

Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

Vice-Chairman Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.)

Paul Damphousse, NSS Executive Director, on The Space Show

This Sunday, January 6, 2013, 12-1:30 PM PST (3-4:30 PM EST, 2-3:30 PM CST) Paul Damphousse, Executive Director of NSS, will be interviewed live on The Space Show. Listeners can talk with Lt. Col. Paul Damphouse or the host and express their views using toll free 1 (866) 687-7223, and by sending e-mail during the program using drspace@thespaceshow.com, thespaceshow@gmail.com, dmlivings@yahoo.com. You can also use Skype from your computer with a headset. The I. D. is thespaceshow. Please note that Skype is only available when announced as such at the beginning of each program. Please note the toll free number is only available during a live Space Show program. At all other times, it is disconnected.

Chinese Chang’E 2 Spacecraft Captures Toutatis

Toutatis
Chang’E 2 Images of Asteroid Toutatis on 13 December 2012
Image Credit: Weibo.com/Xinhuashidian

Emily Lakdawalla, at the Planetary Society, published these stunning images of the asteroid Toutatis (captured by The Chinese spacecraft Chang’E 2) as it tumbled past the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012.

Chang’E 2 was originally launched on 1 October 2010, and mapped the Moon during an eight month mission. China published these high resolution images of the Moon earlier this year. Now, Chang’E 2 has become the first spacecraft to reach the Sun-Earth Lagrange point (SEL-2) from lunar orbit. It departed lunar orbit in June of 2011.

The world was caught completely off-guard by this low profile fly-by of the asteroid Toutatis. At closest approach, Chang’E 2 was 3.2 kilometers above the surface of the asteroid. The images were taken from a distance of 93 and 240 kilometers. China becomes the fourth country to observe an asteroid, after US, the European Union and Japan.

In January, Chang’E 2 will reach a distance of 10 million kilometers from Earth.

Additional details have been published by Xinhua on their website, and at Discovery.com.

In August, Bill Gray at the Planetary Society, published an update on the Chnag’E 2 mission.

Paolo, a member of the UnmannedSpaceflight.com forum, reported in October concerning a paper he had obtained from the IAF Congress entitled “Low energy trajectory optimization for CE-2’s extended mission after 2012“. He did share these items from the paper:

  • 13 December 2012 is confirmed as the date. no distance nor relative speed or other details are given
  • we are told that the Beijing Aerospace Control Center called for proposals on a mission beyond L2 in January 2012
  • there were lots of interesting proposals including one that would flyby Earth and Moon repeatedly, visit the L1 and L2 Lagrangian points, flyby a hundred-meter sized asteroid and finally explore the L4 Sun-Earth point in 2017 (the paper states that CE-2 would have been the first mission to do so. I think one of the two Stereos was first)
  • in March 2012 the Toutatis flyby, proposed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology was selected
  • in a non-optimized form, the mission would have cost 107.5 m/s of the remaining 120 m/s delta-v budget
  • a 6.2 m/s correction on 15 April “was mainly used to keep the Lissajous trajectory”. it was previously reported as the date CE-2 was maneuvered out of the L2 halo orbit
  • trajectory optimization was only carried out starting on 16 April. After optimization, an additional 22 m/s delta-v was gained that could be used to ensure a successful flyby
  • the first targeting maneuver was carried out on 31 May (32.9 m/s)
  • the second targeting maneuver (46.5 m/s) was to be carried out on 24 September

Sky and Telescope has also weighed in with unique information on the fly-by. The passage was so close that the deflection in the trajectory of the spacecraft could be used to determine the gravitational mass of Toutatis, which in turn would yield the overall density, a key to understanding its bulk composition and internal makeup.

edited: 5 PM 16 December 2012

Your Very Own Personal Space Program

Michael Mackowski, a member of the Phoenix chapter of the National Space Society, has given us another interesting essay:

Your Very Own Personal Space Program

There are many ways folks express their interest in the space program. Some space enthusiasts read everything they can find and often have a large book collection. Some people accumulate souvenirs and autographs. Photos, patches, and pins are popular collectibles. Scale models can be another way to bring the space program to life in your home or office.

I have been inspired by space exploration since I was a youngster. Prior to finishing school and entering a career in aerospace engineering, my participation in the space program was limited to building scale models of the vehicles that were leaving the planet. Actually, I have never stopped building models of spacecraft, even while I build them for a living as an engineer. Like engineering, I find that modeling is just another expression of one’s creativity.

Over the years I have been participating in a network of other hobbyists with similar interests. What I have found is that many of these people, while being hobbyists and craftsmen in terms of their model building, are also passionate about space. My situation is a bit unique in that space is both my hobby and career. Most people who are passionate about space have other, usually non-technical careers. So one way they can feel closer to space exploration is by building small replicas of the hardware that makes it possible.

Certainly this sort of passion is the root of many hobbies. Military history buffs build models of tanks and fighter jets. Auto racing enthusiasts build race car models. Would be sailors rig up miniature ships and sailboats. People collect or paint miniature horses because they cannot afford to own a real horse. Airplane fans who cannot afford lessons or a plane can have a shelf full of models. Frustrated astronaut candidates build Apollo lunar modules and space shuttles. It’s not the same, but for many people it may be as close as you will get. It’s your own personal space program.

Enthusiasts want a piece of the space program they can see up close, hold in their hand, and relate to three dimensionally. Books and videos and internet sites are flat and virtual. A model is real and fills space. And you built it yourself. That’s why model building is more fulfilling than just collecting or buying pre-built souvenir models. You are now a rocket scientist, only scaled down, and with simpler technology. You have combined art with technology. You feel more a part of the movement, a part of the collective that is moving out to space. Through model building, you are more than an observer. You have made a statement, that by building this miniature monument to space exploration, you are supporting it, and proclaiming it to whomever enters your hobby room or office or wherever you chose to display your work.

If you can’t be an astronaut or be an engineer in the space industry, you can have your own little private miniature space program, and thus pay homage to whatever past or future off-planet venture that inspires you.

In that way, maybe it will inspire someone else, and the movement grows by one more.