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.

Space Hype

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.

Space Tourism

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.”

Cost Predictions

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.