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.

SpaceX

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.

A 2021 Mars Expedition Sounds Exciting but Does It Make Sense?

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

About a year ago, Dennis Tito formed an foundation, Inspiration Mars, whose goal was to send a married couple on a fly-by space mission to Mars and back. This would have to be launched in 2018 to take advantage of the relative alignments of the Earth and Mars. There are obvious challenges to overcome to make this successful, notably funding and the lack of demonstrated life support systems that can last 500 days with no resupply. A few months ago, Tito testified before Congress, noting that he would need the help of NASA to pull off this mission, specifically calling out the need for a heavy launch vehicle like the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.

Now a some members of Congress (specifically Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) is proposing a very similar mission but sponsored by NASA. Note that the idea did not originate with NASA.  This would be launched in 2021 and takes advantage of a Venus fly-by for a gravity assist, and results in a mission only a month or so longer than the 2018 plan by Inspiration Mars. It would be the second launch of the SLS and the inaugural flight of the Orion deep-space vehicle. This plan, as well as the Inspiration Mars plan, requires a habitat module which does not exist today, although could be based on American or Russian modules used on the International Space Station. The 2021 launch date provides a bit more realistic schedule to develop some of the missing pieces for such an audacious mission compared to the Inspiration Mars plan.

But does this 2021 plan make any sense?  Does it lead to the permanent settlement of space, or is it part of a long term strategy of human exploration of deep space, or will it leave us with any new capabilities that could be used to develop lunar resources or advance the date of putting people on the surface of Mars? My initial thought is no, it does none of these very well, but there may still be a reason to embrace it (which I’ll get to in a bit).

For establishing a solid foothold on the Moon, we will need landers and equipment to process the local regolith to extract resources. Any deep space mission, be it to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars, needs to be part of a long term strategic plan to establish mankind’s permanent presence on other solar system bodies. This mission doesn’t address those needs. For putting a crew on the surface of Mars, we need landers (again) and long-lived life support equipment. Both the new proposal and the Inspiration Mars concept will need a reliable closed life support system, so either of these would be a step in that direction. Ideally, one would like to develop that technology and test it in low Earth orbit or in cislunar space, where a rescue or recovery would be possible should something go wrong. I have not seen a detailed development plan for these missions, so perhaps they are including that. But if that is the case, what value added is the cost of this fly-by mission provide you since you already have developed one of the technologies needed for a Mars landing mission? This is where we get to the “other” reason this mission may make sense.

Is a Venus and Mars human fly-by mission valuable from a gee-whiz perspective that might just incite an increased demand for missions that would actually lead to permanent settlements? We have been looking for something for the public to get excited about. Could this be it? The Inspiration Mars folks admitted this from the start, so is Congress picking up on that approach?  Or are they just looking for an entertaining space spectacular (it might be a great television reality series) to justify the existence of their giant SLS rocket?

While a fly-by mission with a crew generates no science results that a robotic probe couldn’t provide at a much lower cost, and doesn’t really put footprints on Mars, and leaves no real infrastructure for future long-term development, the impact of actually going to Mars may generate intangible benefits that are difficult to imagine at this time.

Such a mission would indeed be a real interplanetary expedition. There is something to be said for that. It may not have any great scientific justification, but it could have a big impact on society at a more fundamental level. Is this the “statement” mission that underscores (regains, for some) America’s leadership in space that a lot of people have been calling for?

This doesn’t have to be a terribly expensive mission. The SLS is happening anyway. This may be a relatively cheap way to justify the expensive SLS development. The hab module shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. It would be similar to ISS modules. And we’ve been working on CLLSS for a long time. The technology to pull off this mission isn’t that far off, but certainly there is a lot of development required. At this early stage, however, making a believable cost-benefits trade study is difficult.

Are there better ways to spend what little money NASA has at their disposal? Wouldn’t investing in a large lunar lander be a more logical next step? That would require a long term strategy for human planetary exploration, which we still don’t have. But remember, the benefits of this proposal are not primarily driven by logic. If it encourages some political commitment to a long term space program, is that really so bad?

Wrapping up 2013 with a Shiny Bow

The year is winding down with some interesting developments related to space programs.

Globally, India has sent a probe on its way to Mars, the first such mission for that nation. China has sent a lunar probe in orbit around our Luna, and by the time this article is published, ought to have attempted a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows. On the other hand, the normally reliable Long March 4B experienced what appears to be an upper stage failure in the launch of an environmental observation satellite.

Back in the USA, on December 3 SpaceX achieved a major milestone with the successful launch of a commercial communications satellite into geostationary orbit with their Falcon 9 rocket. This is set to be the first of many such commercial (non-government) payloads launched by them in the next year. It will be interesting to see if they can achieve the pace required to execute all of those missions. In another NewSpace development, Blue Origin had a good test firing of their BE-3 oxygen-hydrogen engine. This is the first new rocket engine of this type to be developed in the US in decades.

In the realm of audacious proposals, the folks from Mars One (who want to establish a colony on Mars) have contracted with Lockheed Martin to do a mission concept study for a version of the Phoenix Mars lander for a privately sponsored mission to the Red Planet. Whether Mars One can come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars that is likely going to be needed to pay for such a project is yet to be seen, but it is an indication of how serious they are about this effort.

And at Jupiter, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope have suggested that there are huge water geysers erupting on Europa. This icy moon is thought to have a deep ocean under its ice crust but until now there was no evidence of water reaching the surface. It is possible that there is more water on Europa that all of planet Earth. This could make a Europa lander mission much more compelling.

I don’t want to attempt to make this blog a news column (as there are many websites doing a great job at providing news on space exploration) but I thought these recent items were notable enough to close out the year on a positive note.

Locally, we decided not to compete with all the holiday activities and are not holding any events in December. Make sure you reserve January 18 for our next meeting which will feature Art Anzaldua talking about future operations in the Earth-Moon system.

Mike Mackowski
Phoenix NSS/TMS Chapter President
12/13/13

The Role of Chapters and Grass Roots Space Advocacy

Commentary by Mike Mackowski, 10/25/13

I’ve been a little quiet recently on this blog. There has been activity in the way of space news (the successful Antares/Cygnus flight to ISS, an upgraded Falcon 9 launch, the successful LADEE lasercom experiment, etc.) but nothing that inspired me to write any new commentary.

I’ve been busy with a number of activities involving outreach to schools and related STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects. In fact, I could use some additional volunteers to meet the various requests we get for mentors and speakers. There are several K-12 schools looking for help, so contact me if you are interested. Coming up in early November is the SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space – sort of a campus-based version of NSS) annual SpaceVision conference which will be held at ASU in Tempe.

The NSS leadership recently held their board of directors meeting, which triggered some discussions among chapter leaders across the country. The issue was the relative balance (within NSS) between chapter activities and broader national-level efforts. From my perspective, and my long history with this organization, you really need both. The national organization provides a highly visible public image and a voice in Washington, DC, while local chapters provide a venue for personal involvement and opportunities for grass roots activism.

Focusing on local activities, and considering that most space policy decisions are made in Washington, what is the role of chapters in an organization like NSS? Consider the list of “E”s below.

Energize Membership
• A compelling local group can motivate members to stay involved, renew their membership, and recruit new members. If a chapter can grow and have a larger active membership base, they can take on more projects.

Educate members about what is going on in the space business
• You can get info on line but you usually have to look for it.
• Info acquired via an in-person presentation is often serendipitous and surprising. You could learn something you never expected. You could find something you weren’t looking for. You get to have a personal exchange with the presenter. It is much harder to do that on the internet.

Entertainment
• There is a social aspect to any avocational pursuit. Space exploration is no different. Having a local chapter with interesting activities builds membership by keeping people involved, having fun, coming back, and encouraging new members.

Engaging Others
• The general public is under-educated about technology in general and space in particular. Most folks think the US has no space program. A chapter can perform public outreach and serve as a source of information for local media. This also creates opportunities to enhance membership.

What this says to me is that being an effective space advocate is a lot more fun when you are doing it in concert with other like minded people. Being active in a chapter is a great way to make that happen, so please get involved and visit a chapter meeting or say hi on this blog or our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Moonsociety/).

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.

Mars2

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.

Soyuz 4 and 5 – Drama in the Early Soviet Space Program.

Soyuz 4,5 Crew
Crew of Soyuz 4 and 5: Alexei Yeliseyev, Yevgeni Khrunov, Vladimir Shatalov, and Boris Volynov
Image Credit: Joachim Becker / SpaceFacts.de

Ben Evans at AmericaSpace has a great two part series on the early Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 docking and crew transfer mission.

Part One describes the events leading up to the dual flight. Early unmanned trials of the new Soyuz capsule had parachute problems. Docking experiments were conducted under the disguise of the Cosmos 186 and 188. They achieved only a soft dock, and Cosmos 186 suffered a steep reentry and hard landing, while Cosmos 188 suffered a ballistic reentry and was ordered to self destruct. Cosmos 212 and 213 succeeded with a hard docking, clearing the way for a manned rendezvous mission. Parachute problems persisted, however, and Vladimir Komarov was killed on Soyuz 1 when both the main chute and backup failed. Additional problems with spacesuits too big to fit through the exit/entry hatches used for the two crew transfer were resolved with news suits and a larger hatch design. Eventually, the mission got underway with with the launch of Vladimir Shatalov on 14 January 1969 at 10:30 AM Moscow time. Soyuz 5 was launched at 10:04 AM on 15 January with Boris Volynov, Alexei Yeliseyev and Yevgeni Khrunov.

Part Two details the docking, exchange of crew members along with the trials of spacewalks by Khrunov and Yeliseyev, and return. The morning after docking and transfer, Shatalov, Yeliseyev, and Khrunov “descended through a wintry blizzard and thumped onto the snowy Kazakh steppe at 9:53 AM”. Volynov began his descent in Soyuz 5 the following day. It was a harrowing journey, and it would be three decades before the West learned any of the details. Volynov had just four words for the recovery team: “Is my hair gray?”

Curiosity – Sol 130

By the middle of December, Curiosity had reached the Glenelg region of Gale Crater and descended into the Yellowknife Bay depression. Curiosity is now exploring for the first target rock for it’s hammering drill.

After leaving Bradbury Landing, Curiosity spent extensive time at Rocknest (Sols 55-100), and followed this with investigations around Point Lake (Sols 102-124).

Curiosity Map
Map of Curiosity’s Travels During the first 130 Sols
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona